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What does it mean to be an innovative thinker – what are the defining traits, reflexes and characteristics?

An innovative thinker is permanently curious – always ready to explore a side-track.

Typically, business leaders and managers are impatient to get the job done and move on to the next thing. And if a problem arises, they’ll cut straight to a prompt solution. Now, that’s better than doing nothing at all. But very often, it’s not the best approach.

A better approach is to stand back, think about the problem and run through some analyses – for example, root cause, why-why or lotus blossom – to consider or reconsider what sort of assumptions you’re making about the issue that lies before you.

Once you’ve done that, you come up with some ideas. And the first idea you come up with may be a pretty good one. But it’s almost certain that if you and a group of colleagues spend more time on it together, you will come up with something even better.

In a complex business problem, you may have a situation where sales are down, or a marketing campaign isn’t working. More complex problems with lots of layers require more thought and challenge – and the innovative thinker is always prepared to conceive of creative, radical or even outlandish ways to tackle problems.

Some ideas may be silly. Others may be impractical, or too expensive. But occasionally, an idea that stems from a more innovative approach will be far superior to one that emerges from the conventional thinking that most people use.

What’s the relationship between innovative thinking and both individual and organisational performance?

Most organisations today recognise the need for innovation: it’s not a nice-to-have – it’s essential. Even in the public and third sectors, demands are increasing all the time, but the resources that organisations are able to lay their hands on are not expanding at the same rate. If you look at the NHS, the Home Office or any charity, the same problems are mounting across the board.

The only way to address those demands is not to use your pencils until they’re shorter, or to write on both sides of the paper – or to burn staff out. It’s to do things smarter. You’ve got smart people on your payrolls – so use them.

This is where innovative thinking comes in – because innovative, or lateral, thinking isn’t just critical for improvement. It’s critical for survival. If you don’t innovate, your competitors will find smarter, better ways to deliver the goods and services that your customers want. And they’ll run rings around you.

Innovation is key to growth, competitive advantage and survival.

How do you define lateral thinking?

‘Lateral thinking’ is a phrase coined by Edward de Bono, who sadly died last year. The way he described it is that unlike conventional thinking – in which people steadily build blocks of knowledge on top of each other in a vertical fashion – lateral thinking is about coming at problems sideways-on, or from unusual, fresh perspectives.

That involves challenging conventional assumptions, and displacement: a sort of deliberate perspective shift, whereby you encourage yourself to approach problems from a different point of view.

It involves asking fundamental questions to check whether the premise from which you are working is sound  – plus the use of chance, or random inputs, to shake things up a little.

There’s a lot of light on supposedly singular public figures in business and culture who've made names for themselves by driving innovation. But to what extent is innovative, thinking learned behaviour that anyone can pick up?

I’d say it’s a learned behaviour – but some are naturally better at it than others. It’s a lot like music: if you ask a random group of people whether they’re musical, most of them would say no – but all of us could wring out a tune if we were incentivised to do it.

Similarly, the majority of us were creative when we were children. But now, in adulthood, perhaps we’ve settled into a routine – or, even worse, a rut – and those reflexes aren’t as sharp or supple as they once were. And perhaps because of our working environments, we’ve come to think: This is how we do the job… there’s no point taking risks. In other words, we’ve been disincentivised to experiment.

So, what can be done? Well, as a leader, you can change the culture of the organisation. You can train people in lateral thinking techniques. You can foster a climate of innovation and experimentation. And you can reward people for trying things out when you carry out personnel reviews.

One very powerful thing a leader can do is to single out a member of staff – in a positive way – for trying something that failed. A failure is okay if it’s an honourable one that produced valuable lessons or insights. If you keep messing things up because you’re incompetent, that’s not okay – but the problem is, many leaders conflate the two.

Trying out new things inevitably involves wasting money on occasional initiatives that don’t work out. But if everything you try works, you’re not being bold enough.

So, does that put the onus on innovative leaders to take their people with them?

Well, there are two ways in which an innovative leader can lead innovation. One is for them to be a trailblazer and have loads of great ideas – people such as Richard Branson and Steve Jobs come to mind. But there’s another way, more rooted in a ‘servant leader’ approach, which is to employ really creative people and empower them to try things out.

One question I ask when I work with companies is, “How many good ideas did you introduce last year?” And they say, “Well, we did these things here.” And I’ll ask, “Where did those ideas come from?” And if it turns out that most of them came from the executive suite, I regard that as not so good.

I like to see ideas bubble up from the bottom – and you can encourage that in all sorts of ways. You don’t have to offer a lot of money. But you do need to provide recognition – plus a fast response when people put forward their suggestions.

There are lots of idea-management software packages now that enable staff to contribute ideas and their colleagues to comment and vote on them. The innovative leader can be someone who essentially grows innovators underneath them.

Voices from our community: Paul Sloane is a speaker and trainer in the field of lateral thinking, and author of The Innovative Thinker and Think Like an Innovator.

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