7 Ways to See and Teach Innovation

lightstock_129013_medium_user_2273690What spurs innovation? Can we learn how to innovate? Can we teach it?

Hear the word, ‘innovation,’ and you might think of an R&D lab, a design group, or a start-up venture. But today innovators are in demand everywhere – from the factory floor to the salesroom, the IT help desk to the HR department, the employee cafeteria to the C-suite. Innovation isn’t a department. It’s a mindset that should permeate your entire enterprise.

Increasingly we’re tasked with innovating in our organizations. It’s tempting to dive in and build systems that seem innovative, only to realize that we haven’t yet grasped how to approach it in our day-to-day lives. That’s why I got excited when I read about Mohanbir Sawhney and Sanjay Khosla’s work out of Northwestern University. I think their research findings have the potential to help us with innovation on multiple levels – individual, team, and organization.

Sawhney and Khosla have spent a combined fifty years working with startups and large corporations. Their research helped them recognize that insights – “imaginative understanding[s] that can be tapped to improve efficiency, generate revenue, or boost engagement” – fuel innovation. It also led them to identify seven insights associated with innovation:

Anomalies: Pay attention to the deviations in data – quantitative or qualitative – in day-to-day operations. Notice them. Make a point of encouraging others to share them. Talk about what surprises you. Encourage a mindset of questioning.

Confluence: Look for the intersections between different approaches, ideas and trends. Look for ways things come together or intersect. Make a point to ask questions about or share thinking on patterns of confluence.

Frustration: What annoys people in your organization? Find a way to capture annoyances, so that they become something you can learn from, analyze, and study. How can those frustrations be turned into opportunities to improve, rethink, and innovate?

Orthodoxies: Ensure someone is always pushing back on the tendency to fall back on, “we’ve always done it this way.” It’s an innovation killer. Build this pushback into meetings, conversations, and interactions.

Extremities: Get curious about “deviants,” those outliers on the far end of positive and negative. These are the people with the most far-out enthusiasm or complaints. Really sit with what they have to say and see if there’s something there.

Voyages: Take a trip – real, virtual or otherwise – to spend time in another person’s shoes, to see things from another perspective. Learn about others’ preferences and behaviors, and think about how to respond to them. Do a deep dive into another person or group’s world.

Analogies: Borrow or “import” from another way of thinking, industry, place, or context. What approaches are others taking that might work in your organization? Where are they innovating, systematizing, offering another important perspective?

Can they be taught? Can they be learned? Absolutely. Knowing what they are helps us approach innovation in more strategic and systematic ways. By starting with individuals, we can build the system-wide thinking we need to effect large-scale change. They can become go-to habits of mind for thinking about what we need to flourish.


  1. cariindc on October 26, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for putting this research on my radar, Gayle. Definitely going to dive into the related HBR article. The reference above to confluence reminds me of a great book about intersections that you might appreciate – The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson.

  2. Gayle on October 26, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the terrific tip! I will definitely check it out. Have a great Sunday!