The Innovative Habit

This post compares the act of innovation to the act of creativity and suggests that an innovative habit can be just as productive for businesses as a creative habit is for creatives. 

Preface

What does it mean to be a ‘creative’? 

Put simply, ‘creatives’ are people who create something to be appreciated in an artistic nature. The most obvious examples include a painter who paints, a writer who writes, a sculptor who sculpts, a choreographer who choreographs, or a composer who composes. Then, there are the tangent arts. Architecture, interior design, and movie production may be done in a style that evokes feelings, conjures memories, and makes connections for people. As eras evolve they bring creatives more medium possibilities. Web sites, virtual worlds, font creation, and app production can all be crafted with aesthetic appeal. 

On a more personal level, creatives might be individuals who produce (or at least work on producing) as part of their existence to be fulfilled. A creative’s day is not complete unless they have time to physically empty their brain in a tangible way – a dance, a drawing, a piece of writing, a composition. And they remain restless until work is complete – constantly going over and over directions and opportunities in their mind … until, of course, another idea comes along. 

Creatives toil with ideas, problems, and deep concerns. They possibly feel MORE than much of the population; they are surpassingly empathic. Their expression helps them to release anguish. They feel better having had the chance to work, and they feel free when the work is complete. They produce for no one by themselves. 

 

Art is produced from unrest. 

Are innovators creatives?

Innovators also toil with ideas. They set their aim on solving problems through invention, with an equal benefit being for the greater good of the marketplace AND profit. Small, incremental gains in an innovation’s success help them to release the pressure of the unknown and provide them with encouragement and momentum to keep going. They feel better when they’ve launched, but feel free when their innovation has success. Then they are spun back into a spiral of ‘what’s next’ in the evolution of the innovation’s success. They produce for and feel obligated to a marketplace of consumers. 

Innovators might be problem solvers who must turn into managers. At some point in the development of the innovation, they must hire employees to support the innovation’s growth. Their solution can only come to fruition with the help of others. An innovation becomes a business and product, eventually.

 

Innovations are produced to solve a problem in the marketplace. 

 

In one part of their process, innovators are creatives. Innovators toil with problems in much the same way as a creative, but their expression is to develop a solution that can be marketed and harnessed. Their medium no longer belongs to them after it is created, in a sense. It is replicated and delivered to consumers who use it in their daily lives. 

Habit Creates Space for Creativity

Over the past several decades, our lives have been dramatically changed through the emergence of technological innovations. Devices that connect us to a world’s worth of information and each other, being able to meet and work while anywhere in the world, digital health records that all of our doctors can access, big data collection that improves traffic patterns through artificial intelligence, robotic limbs, and devices that recognize our voice when we ask to turn on our lights are just a few of the many spectacular advances in our time. 

The world is filled with many innovations, and they all started with ideas. In some cases, ideas are spontaneous. They come to an innovator who knows how to develop an idea into a tangible product. Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson are names that come to mind when many of us think of innovators and the innovative companies they created. Many have studied the ways of these innovators and imagined how they can harness the collective imagination in their own company. Developing a process to conjure up and study ideas is a critical business process in such a rapidly changing world. 

Twyla Tharpe, a famed American choreographer and dancer, published a book called, The Creative Habit [10]. In this book, she shares strategic steps anyone can use to create space and opportunities to manifest creativity. Tharp speaks about creating a ritual for creativity to emerge. Rather than the ritual being the creative act, she actually says her daily ritual involves setting the stage for the creative act to emerge. Just getting up and getting in the cab every morning triggers a daily schedule of activities that prepare her for the emergence of creativity. As Tharpe argues, developing a creative habit creates more opportunities for creatives to create.  

A study conducted by Robert Boice in 1990 [2] concurs that habit creates an opportunity for creatives of another nature: writers. Boice studied a small sample of college professors who were placed into groups and assigned different writing techniques: abstinence (forbidden from using non-emergency writing), spontaneous (writing on 50 occasions they felt inspired), and contingency management (50 writing occasions where they were forced to write regardless of spontaneous ideas). The outcomes variables were the number of pages written each day AND the number of days between creative ideas. The results were outstanding. Those assigned to the contingency management group not only wrote 3.5 times more than those in the spontaneous group, they wrote 16 times more than those in the abstinence group. In addition, the number of days between creative ideas was around 1 day for those in the contingency management group, but 2-5 days for those in the other two groups. This study shows that habit breeds progress AND creativity. 

If creativity can come from habit, can innovation also come from habit?

 

In his book titled, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey [5] documents a regular 24 hours for some of history’s greatest artists and innovators. It’s the same 24 hours all humans have in a day, but each one of us uses it differently. Besides mentioning Tharpe’s morning ritual, he also discussed the daily routine of many key innovators – usually involving waking up at the same time, eating breakfast, walking, writing, and usually ending the day at a decent hour. Some of the more exceptional rituals were followed by Buckminister Fuller who (like Thomas Jefferson) tested polyphasic sleeping, Charles Darwin and Carl Jung who spent much of their productive lives reclused in the countryside without electricity, Albert Einstein who (like Steve Jobs) had a bit of a daily uniform, and Honore de Balzac and Gustav Flaubert who would both write in the middle of the night. Great innovators of our time have envious routines that lead to productivity, many of which include meditation, working out, and tea (think Oprah, Tim Ferris, and Tony Robbins) [1]. Rituals help creative people to secure regular time in their lives to take care of themselves, clear their minds, and allow time for ideas to percolate. If they just flipped on their phones and scrolled their morning away like many of us, they would lose the precious time gifted to them and ideas would have no space to emerge. 

There are also companies that have created rituals that support innovation in their company and the results show us that habits can also form innovation. One example is Google, which encourages their employees to spend 20% of their time on work they think will benefit the company. The 20% project has resulted in Gmail and Google News. Similar projects include 3M’s 15% rule [9] and the Genius Hour [3] in classrooms. Companies can also host hackathons or cross-functional innovation competitions, like Cisco’s Innovate Everywhere Challenge [4] which has resulted in five ventures that have generated more than $2 billion in business impact. 

II

Conjuring Ideas

At first glance, artists and innovators may seem like different breeds. One with a yearning for expression, another with the drive for solutions and profit, but ideation underpins both of their mediums. Ideas form their missions. 

Twyla Tharpe (2003) describes some strategies she utilizes to discover and collect ideas in her book, The Creative Habit [10]. The first is scratching – like a lottery ticket, she scratches at everything that crosses her path hoping it will spark an idea to dance to. Another strategy is a box she creates for every project that becomes filled with clippings, videos, music, and books. The box documents her research and represents her commitment. In this era, digital notebooks and dropboxes serve the same purpose: to store ideas found on quests. 

The strategies that Tharpe follows form her framework for conjuring ideas for her choreography. In some cases, practice sparks synthesis as ideas. In other cases, practice sparks new ideas. The act of practicing a framework is really what is important. It is the act of seeking, versus waiting. She also emphasizes that the framework only works with consistency [10]. Without consistency, one gets rusty, and the framework takes longer to get going. It’s like writing. When one first sits down to write after a long period of not doing so, words take longer to appear on the page. Besides starting on a project, the second most important point is consistently working through a framework. 

Time must be set aside to consider new possibilities. Ideas must be sought. Innovators can get caught in the act of carrying out the everyday tasks of their business, and miss valuable opportunities to ideate. Innovators are human, like creatives, and humans need time to think. 

Systematic Innovation

Innovators are also entrepreneurial – always searching for change so they can respond to it and exploit it as an opportunity [6]. This decade emphasized a push for more organizations to be entrepreneurial and for more leaders to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. One way to do this is to make innovation systematic. We ended the last chapter with a look at companies that have created rituals that support innovation. Systematic innovation requires companies to proactively [ritualistically] look for changes and opportunities. 

Developing a routine is also something Peter F. Drucker [6] agrees with. He says innovative opportunities can be “systematically analyzed and studied”. With new knowledge, businesses must act swiftly. Their search and study must be organized and done on a systematic basis. “Entrepreneurial businesses,” he says, “treat entrepreneurship as a duty; they are disciplined about it, they work at it, they practice it.”

 

An entrepreneurial practice is the ritual of entrepreneurial businesses. 

 

A large part of systematic innovation is creating the right mindset for it. How an organization is run and how people are encouraged to be innovative set the stage for innovation. Managerial vision should be focused on opportunity. Operating reports should have two sections: what is wrong AND what is right. For everything to go right, those units should be celebrated and asked to share their practices [6]. No one should be restricted from sharing their ideas in a company. No leader can see all the problems existing in their organization. Relying on employees at all levels to share solutions is a practice that can assist all organizations.   

Innovation is much more than product creation and improvement. A large majority of the innovation definition should be about process. Innovating the way we do things on a daily basis can save time, money, and lead to new markets. For example, shipping locally versus worldwide is innovation and opens a company up to new markets. Shifting from a ‘call and order’ to online ordering allows customers to order at any time. 

III

Focusing on Ideas

 

In the time an entrepreneurial business has carved out for them, where should they be focusing their energy?

 

There are pockets of possibilities inside every company: unexpected successes or failures, disconnects between what is and what is perceived to be, sudden shifts in the industry or society, or new knowledge. 

  1. Consider the data. Sudden shifts can be discovered today through data. Algorithms and analytics comb vast amounts of data to uncover possible meaning. Analyzing demographic shifts, for example, might tell a company a new market has opened up and how to market to them. One example of a possible shift always overlooked is age and cultural distributions – very few organizations are prepared for such shifts because they aren’t studying them. 
  2. Simple solutions. Another key approach is to focus on simple, tangible products or processes. “For an innovation to be effective, it has to be simple and it has to be focused” [3], Drucker says. Otherwise, it will be hard to appeal to the masses. In one sentence, what is your innovation and what can it do?
  3. Enhance and invent. Innovation is often seen as a starting process, rather than part of a continuous loop. Just as society evolves, so should businesses evolve their products. This doesn’t always mean creating new product lines, but it can. Simply adding features to existing great products can help the consumer immensely. For example, copy machines and printers still serve the same purpose as they always have, but their speed, quality, and accessibility have been greatly improved over time. Most recently, wifi capability allows printers to be activated and sent instructions from any mobile device allowing people to print from anywhere in their home.
  4. Combine ideas. Sometimes, employees might find commonalities between two seemingly unrelated ideas or challenges in the company. Getting the company involved in developing a solution could generate some pretty creative innovations. 
  5. Meaningful problems. Ask employees to reflect on some of the biggest challenges and then solicit input from the entire company to generate solutions. Random ideas might generate revenue and partnerships for a company. 

Identifying a Vehicle 

We ended the first chapter with a look at companies who have created rituals that support innovation and we discussed the concept of systematic innovation that requires companies to proactively [ritualistically] look for changes and opportunities on chapter II. There are many vehicles for rituals and to be ritualistic about innovation. 

  1. Build in company time. One reason why Google’s 20% project, 3M’s 15% rule, and the Genius Hour is so successful is because it mandates time and trust for employees and students to develop their own interests and solutions. Another key reason is the consistency of time that we discussed in chapter II. Mandated time every week means that there is a consistent focus on innovative research and results that can’t get pushed aside. 
  2. Host events. Not only are events, like Cisco’s Innovate Everywhere Challenge [4], a great way to cross-train and build cross-functional teams, they are also a way to block out a larger chunk of time to ideate, design, and build a solution so that teams can work in sprints to get to the finish line. 
  3. Harness technology. Technology tools can centralize innovation work. Many help teams to keep track of the project timeline, plot trends and risks, assign work, and track progress. One example is Itonics [8], a systematic innovation management tool and toolkit for companies. 

 

Summary

Developing rituals and frameworks for creativity has been a successful strategy for many creatives. If creativity can come from habit, innovation can also come from habit. Leaders can develop routines that create space for systematic innovation practices to encourage idea generation in their organizations, as well. Strengthening these practices with a focus on key ideas will help them to align ideation and productivity toward organization goals. Identifying vehicles to increase systematic innovation will help companies to build an innovative habit. 

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References

  1. Adams, B. (2017, September 7). 6 morning rituals of Steve Jobs, Tony Robbins, Oprah, and other successful leaders. Inc.com. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.inc.com/bryan-adams/6-celebrity-morning-rituals-to-help-you-kick-ass.html 
  2. Boice, R. (1988). Professors as writers (a self-help manual). Long Beach, CA: Center for Faculty Development, California State University. 
  3. Carter, N. (2014, August 4). Genius hour and the 6 essentials of personalized education. Edutopia. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/genius-hour-essentials-personalized-education-nichole-carter 
  4. Chan, S. (2019, September 12). Cheers to five years of Innovate Everywhere Challenge. The Network. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://newsroom.cisco.com/feature-content?type=webcontent&articleId=2017697#:~:text=To%20date%2C%2046%20percent%20of,%242%20billion%20in%20business%20impact. 
  5. Currey, M. (Ed.). (2013). Daily rituals: How artists work. Knopf.
  6. Drucker, P. F. (1994). Innovation and entrepreneurship: practice and principles.
  7. Itonics. (n.d.). Cisco Innovate Everywhere Challenge. Innovation Case Study. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.itonics-innovation.com/case-studies/cisco-innovate-everywhere-challenge 
  8. ITONICS. (n.d.). Innovation Management – Software & Agile Strategy: ITONICS Innovation. Innovation Management – Software & Agile Strategy | ITONICS Innovation. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.itonics-innovation.com/ 
  9. Stoll, J. D. (2020, May 15). Corporate America’s most underrated innovation strategy: 3M’s 15% rule. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 29, 2021, from https://www.wsj.com/articles/corporate-americas-most-underrated-innovation-strategy-3ms15-rule-11589556171#:~:text=The%20purifiers%20are%20a%20complex,lasted%20more%20than%2070%20years. 
  10. Tharp, T. (2009). The creative habit: Learn it and use it for life. Simon and Schuster.