The Innovative Habit

Over the past several decades, our lives have dramatically changed with 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 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—these are just some of the many life-altering advances of our time.

The world’s many innovations all started with ideas. In some cases, ideas are spontaneous. They come to an innovator who knows how to develop it 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 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 Tharp, a famed American choreographer and dancer, published a book called, “The Creative Habit.” 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 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 Tharp argues, developing a creative habit creates more opportunities for creatives to create.

A study conducted by Robert Boice, a former professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, 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 when 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 one day for those in the contingency management group, but two to five days for those in the other two groups. This study shows that habit breeds progress and creativity.

From Creativity to Habit

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

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.

In her book, Tharp describes some strategies she uses to discover and collect ideas. 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.

The strategies that Tharp follows form her framework for conjuring ideas. 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. Tharp also emphasizes that the framework only works with consistency. 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. It can be argued that the most important part of a project is consistently working through your framework.

Developing an innovation routine is a concept Peter F. Drucker, the famed management consultant and business visionary, agrees with. In his book, “Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles,” 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. Without a diligent entrepreneurial practice, innovators can get caught in the act of carrying out the everyday tasks of their business and miss valuable opportunities to ideate. Innovators are like creatives, and need time to think. Time must be set aside to consider new possibilities. Ideas must be sought.

Drucker says innovators are entrepreneurial: always searching for change so they can respond to it and exploit it as an opportunity. This decade emphasized a push for more businesses and organizations to be entrepreneurial and for more leaders to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. One way to do this is to make innovation systematic. Systematic innovation requires companies to proactively look for changes and opportunities.

Systematic Innovation Practices

A large part of systematic innovation is creating the right mindset for it, including considering how an organization is run and how people are encouraged to be innovative. Managerial vision should be focused on opportunity. Operating reports should have two sections: what is wrong and what is right. Drucker claims for everything going right, those units should be celebrated and asked to share their practices.

No one should be restricted from sharing their ideas in a company. No leader can know all the problems that exist 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 the process. Innovating the way we do things on a daily basis can save time, money, and lead to new markets. Shifting from a “call and order” to online ordering allows customers to order at any time.

Focusing on Key Ideas

In the limited time an entrepreneurial business has to spend, 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.

    Consider the data. Sudden industry or societal 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.
    Focus on 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,” Drucker says. Otherwise, it will be hard to appeal to the masses. In one sentence, what is your innovation and what can it do?
    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 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, Wi-Fi capability allows printers to be activated and sent instructions from any mobile device, allowing people to send instructions to the printer and print from anywhere in their home.

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 that encourage idea generation in their organizations. Strengthening these practices with a focus on key ideas will help them to align ideation and productivity toward organization goals.

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