In a 2011 study, researchers found that innovative executives spend 50% more time on discovery activities than their counterparts. Discovery activities include associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking.

By Nancy Lin (Founder & Host, Business Reinvention)

As pace of technology advancement picks up, innovation continues to be one of the most urgent issues for businesses today.

In 2006, I decided to write a book about my experience raising money in Africa for my project. The idea to write books never appealed to me but I was willing to give it a try for a good cause. At the beginning, I had a hard time writing – I liked to keep things short and to the point. I knew that to make it a real book, I would have to elaborate and help people imagine what it was like in Tanzania and what I experienced.

Fortunately, I took a lot of photos when I was there. By revisiting those photos, I was able to recall a lot of emotions and learnings but it also gave me new perspective on many aspects of the experience that I had overlooked when I was there – enough to fill the whole book. I realized how much I missed by not being mindful of my surroundings and experiences, and by not taking enough time to observe and reflect on my experience.

As our workloads expand and our pace of life accelerates, many of us struggle to stay focused and inquisitive as we rush in and out of projects. This is especially challenging for busy executives. In trying to do more, we may have become less innovative and productive.

In a 2011 study, researchers found that innovative executives spend 50% more time on discovery activities than their counterparts. Discovery activities include associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking.1 Staying open-minded and present in the moment are critical to these activities.

Lao-Tzu says, “If you’re present, you are alert, fluid, clear and able to welcome all things.”

The researchers also found that executives of the most innovative companies, a mere 15% of the companies surveyed, don’t delegate creative work, they do it themselves. Innovation challenges the status quo so it is easy to understand why leadership from the top is important.

Innovative leadership is probably best exemplified by Steve Jobs, who was credited for Apple’s turnaround. In an interview with WIRED magazine in 1996, Steve shared the secrets of creativity:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

Pressed for time, we sometimes fall into the trap of looking for instant gratification and making quick assumptions about what we know and where useful information and new knowledge can come from, undercutting our abilities to be curious and to observe, notice and connect. To be more innovative, we need to broaden our experiences, develop lateral thinking and take the time to explore each experience without judgment to uncover new insight.

When IDEO, one of the most respected design and innovation firms in the world, was asked to develop a new concept for women’s shoes, the firm invited in a color consultant, a spiritual guide who led barefoot initiates across hot coals, a young mother who was curiously passionate about her thigh-high leather boots, and others from different walks of life to help them broaden their thinking and kick off the brainstorming process.2 Doug Solomon who was a former senior executive at Apple and IDEO talked about innovation on the Business Reinvention show earlier this month.

Steve Jobs had a calligraphy class in college. What seemed useless and irrelevant helped him with the design of the first Macintosh which was the first computer to have beautiful typography.

The chief engineer for Japan’s bullet train, who is also an avid bird-watcher, borrowed an idea from nature and designed the front-end of the train like the beak of kingfishers to reduce noise and electricity consumption while increasing speed.

Several years before the launch of iPhone and iPad, the orientation sensor that determines if the user is holding the product vertically or horizontally was already built in Sony’s digital cameras. It was cool but didn’t seem very useful at the time. The touch-screen feature as well as tablets were also available previously but were attached to clunky keyboards. Steve Jobs and the designers at Apple identified opportunities by noticing disharmonies and were able to synthesize the features in a new way that made these features more compelling and relevant because they thought enough about the experiences and applications.

Unlike most high tech products that have to go through a long adoption period when only the very tech savvy use them, Apple’s products are often embraced by millions of users from the beginning. Apple products show great empathy and in-depth observation of the needs of mainstream consumers. I am amazed by how user-friendly their products and services are.

They are not designed for engineers. They are designed for the rest of us. Some of the features may not be new but when put together in a new way, their products transform how we communicate, explore new things and do our work. It is not really about technology. It’s about people. Their products are what IDEO CEO, Tim Brown, calls “functionally relevant and emotionally resonant”. Steve Jobs brought about not one but four revolutions (Macintosh, iPod, iPhone and iPad), showing that innovative thinking is a mindset and a way of life, not a technique.

It may sound paradoxical to say that leaders, the custodians of the future, have to act like an adult with great emotional intelligence and think like a child with creative wonderment. They must be empathetic and courageous. They must also think broad and non-judgmentally in the beginning but be able to focus on the core ideas and make good judgment when fine tuning the solution in a later stage. It all comes down to the agility to navigate between opposites. The interchange of perspectives and approaches keeps our mind fresh and creates energy. Energy is generated when things collide and turn. When a quiet river drops over a cliff to become a waterfall, it splashes and roars.

Constraints trigger innovation, and agility opens the door to opportunities and renewal. Allow yourself to pause and let your imagination and curiosity run free. When staying present in the moment, you can discover the future.

(1) “The Innovator’s DNA”, HR Week, September 2011
(2) “Change by Design”, Tim Brown

Women 2.0 readers: How do you search for innovation? Let us know in the comments!

nancylinAbout the guest blogger: Nancy Lin is Founder, Host and Producer for Business Reinvention. The show features business innovation and transformation stories. She brings to her show a strong understanding of business having worked for Yahoo, DHL, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi in the US and international markets and driven strong growth with innovative business strategies. She is also an executive coach, a business consultant and the founder of Change Agent SF, which helps clients transform the way they look at their businesses and leadership.