The Mindset, Skillset, Toolset for Innovation

What does it take to innovate? We look at the basics and what they mean for individuals and organizations looking to do it.

Innovation is often equated with its products, not its process. That’s one of the reasons it’s often mis-understood and poorly done at an institutional level because the emphasis is placed on the idea, not the means of generating, realizing, refining, executing, and evaluating those ideas. These are the often invisible, yet critical features: the mindsets, skillsets, and tools that help people to innovate. It’s worth revisiting what these include as we approach at time of year when people reflect on what’s been and look ahead to what could be.

Mindset

I agree with folks like Dave Snowden that the term mindset is highly problematic because it implies a ‘setting’ or static state when what is needed are dynamic minds, adaptive to context and continually changing to meet the challenges of complex conditions.

At the same time, one can also take a more nuanced view of ‘setting’ and consider it to be a moment of pause — a grounding — prior to action. A diver will set before she launches into a pool. A golfer will set before they take their swing. Both will get up and do it again and again and, if they are attentive, will make any adjustments they need before their next attempt or ‘set’. Using this analogy, the idea of mindset is appropriate.

Semantics aside for a moment, the concept of mindset is one that has been the source of much research. Psychologist Carol Dweck has been at the forefront of this research looking at how mindsets affect our perception of opportunities and our abilities. Mindsets frame how we see and think about innovation in the first place. When brought together with an understanding of design and evaluation, an innovator’s mindset can shape what is seen as value and what is valuable — creating more of both.

A mindset for innovation is one that focuses on growth. This does not necessarily mean ‘bigger’, ‘more’, or some naïve notion of scaling, it is about the growth in possibility, flexibility in approach, and willingness to change one’s mind based on new perceptual and experiential information (i.e., learning). Whereas a fixed mindset is about accepting pre-set limits and working within them, an innovator, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, is unreasonable and questions those vulnerabilities refusing to accept many of them.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw

The innovator’s mindset is also one framed in curiosity, attentiveness, and focused on learning. These are in service of growth, but are worth making a distinction nevertheless. The lesson is that: if you want to innovate, working on how you perceive, think about, and approach the world is the first place to start.

These three components of an innovative mindset include:

  1. The psychology of innovation: Understanding the way people perceive, take in information, learn, their motivation (and how to motivate others), and their knowledge.
  2. Systems understanding: Learning how to see interconnections, ‘map’ system boundaries, appreciate and work with complexity, create systems change and work within interconnections
  3. Evaluative thinking: The central tenets of evaluative thinking are an orientation to seeing causal relationships between what we value and what others value in relation to what we do. This is about taking a systematic approach to paying attention to our process and the outcomes that emerge from our innovation work.

Skillset

It’s one thing to see and think about things differently, but innovation is about doing things differently.

To do things we need to be able to put our mindset to work and that includes understanding how to create, design, construct, implement and learn from your experience. There is no master set of skills required to innovate, however there are a few that I’d say are ones that a successful innovator either has or is wise to procure as part of their team.

  1. Communication: A great innovator or innovation team is good at communicating their ideas, making them tangible and clear, and helping
  2. Visualization / Visual Thinking: Great ideas about any system, product, problem or situation requires us to work in three dimensions and that is best done through visual communication whether it is sketch mapping systems, visually representing narratives, or even sticky notes to arrange ideas.
  3. Facilitation/Management: If you’re working with a team, the ability to manage and organize group thinking, discussion, and ideas is vital.
  4. Design / Design Thinking: This is a set of tools that build on the other three that focus on the entire journey and bring together the three mindsets associated with innovation in one place. Ultimately, this is the critical skill and, inclusive of evaluation, is the one that ties innovation activities together and brings together what happens in the model below.
  5. Foresight: This set of skills and methods can help us to see trends, patterns, and systemic structures that are shaping the present and the future. By designing for what comes we are positioning ourselves for success rather than getting trapped designing for a present that will have changed by the time you launch.
  6. Leadership: Not only must you create a vision for what could be, you need to marshal the focus of your peers and inspire them to shape it. This is the role of design and leadership.
The design and innovation cycle

Toolset

You can build a house without a hammer, but it’s really difficult. If you, like me, have ever used a screwdriver handle, axe, or even a block of wood as a hammer you come to appreciate the simple, powerful role of this builders tool. The point I’m trying to make is that tools are perhaps the easiest to swap out, but their purpose is what we must not lose focus of. When I do training with people there is such desire for tools. What they really need most is a mindset, then a skillset, and only then a tool.

Having a hammer does not make you good at building a house. But building one without a hammer is difficult.

There are no specific tools that I recommend above all. Tools and (many) technologies, as Seth Godin points out, can evolve, die so getting too attached to them isn’t wise.

These tools are tied to your product domain and your craft and are the ones that you will need to know. Yes, there are tools like whiteboards and sticky notes that are highly useful for quickly organizing and capturing ideas, toys and games to promote creative thinking, as well as visual thinking software that can help (see the link). Go beyond the sticky notes.

Build your mindset first and do along with skill-building and tool practice and add in persistence as well as a useful system for integrating it into your regular practice and you are on your way to innovating. It’s big, but it’s also natural, and something we know how to do if we are given the permission from ourselves to do it.

Stuck? Want to learn more? Contact me and I can help you and your team out in putting an innovation and learning system together to help you see and do more.

Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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