We are often asked whether people can learn to be innovative. To break that down, you have to ask first whether innovators actually think differently.
Q: Do innovators really think differently?
A: Yes, they really do!
The first step in our research was to state a bunch of hypotheses, which included that innovators DO think and act differently than the general population. We started with a general population sample and a sample of serial innovators (half entre- and half intrapreneurs) and saw there really were clear differences in their attitudes and beliefs that correlate with their behaviors. So we know, behaviorally, we have isolated a difference.
Q: Can ordinary people learn to be more innovative?
A: Probably, but since it involves behavior change, it’s not easy.
When you try to change your diet or exercise habits, or change some other well-worn pattern of behavior, it is challenging. The same holds true of becoming more innovative. We know several things about innovators: they THINK different and they BEHAVE different. When you change how you behave, it changes how you think, and vice versa. (Did you know that, when you hold a pencil in your mouth forcing a smile-like expression, it actually improves your mood?)
Q: How can you become more innovative?
A: To start being more innovative, I would suggest a few pretty easy and fun behavior changes:
Expose yourself to diverse information and points of view.
Read a magazine you would usually never read, watch a movie you wouldn't ordinarily watch, and strike up a conversation with someone who is “not your usual type.” We know that humanity began an innovation explosion when our population density reached a certain point, with cities. That was especially true with crossroad or trading cities. These conditions exposed people to a constant flow of diverse influences. You can create that condition in your own life pretty easily.
Force unlikely connections.
Ask yourself: is there something I learned in this magazine/film/conversation that relates to some other area where you are trying to solve a problem? Many of the world’s most amazing and useful inventions came from such unlikely connections. Even if the connection doesn’t occur to you now, if you associate new information with a wide array of references in your mind, the pathways are there for future connections to be made. If a connection occurs to you, but seems crazy, you may be on to something. Keep experimenting with it.
Get into ‘soft focus’
Most of our surprising connections and insights come, not when we are working our hardest at a problem, but when we are cycling, showering, or walking and mulling the problem lightly. This is because when we are in a high state of cognitive load, our perceptions actually get narrower! When you are REALLY thinking hard about something, you may make fewer mistakes, but you’ll also consider fewer solutions. You want to get into a state of awareness without mental strain. It loosens the filters on our imagination and allows unlikely connections to occur. Experiment and see what activities get you into that ‘soft focus’ state of mind. And then try to do them regularly.