Innovation and Invention at Work
When we hear “Necessity is the mother of invention,” that assumes someone created something to fill a need in society. In Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies , he explained that many times this is not always the reason for inventions. “In fact, many or most inventions were developed by people driven by curiosity.” Even Edison didn’t initially consider the phonograph to reproduce music.
Innovation is at the top of many leaders’ lists for what they’d like their staff members to improve in their organisations.
To be innovative means to come up with new methods, ideas, or products. That requires asking questions and challenging the status quo. There must be a strong desire to learn something new. The trick is how to develop that desire in people.
As we age, our natural sense of curiosity becomes a less dominant force. How can we explain that? There are a multitude of reasons, including (to name a few):
- Fear of failure
- Assuming we know things we don’t
- Technology doing things for us
- Others suppressing our natural desire to explore and learn
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Innovative Leadership: Developing Curiosity
If we want people to be curious at work, we must recognize what holds them back. How can we expect them to solve problems if we don’t allow them to ask questions? How can we anticipate receiving innovative ideas if we micromanage their time and interests?
Many employees don’t provide input for fear of looking stupid. Yes, we can tell them that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. But if our actions don’t align with our words, they’ll keep their questions and ideas to themselves.
The most innovative companies encourage employees to share their passions and ideas. Companies such as Facebook, Uber, Amazon, and Google recruit employees who ask questions. As Google’s CEO has said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”
To improve innovation at work, we need to lead by example, ask questions, and demonstrate empathy based on what we hear. We must avoid groupthink, promote learning, and reward natural curiosity. We recognize this requires persistence to ensure that we don’t quit when we run into the unexpected.
Yes, we can embrace what we don’t know by creating an environment that rewards curiosity and crazy questions. If we observe leaders such as Elon Musk (Tesla) we see that they explored new areas and broke through boundaries.
How can we expect our people to explore new boundaries and create innovation if we as leaders tie their hands?
Even if your ambitions are huge, start slow, start small, build gradually, build smart.
Big innovative breakthroughs
Instead of looking at innovators as not following the rules or being contrary, we need to consider that crazy questions have led to big innovative breakthroughs. So we don’t get placated into believing we have all the answers, we need questions such as:
“Why not?” “Why doesn’t this work?” “What are we missing?”
How has your organization gone about rewarding those who ask questions, challenge habits, and seek adventure?
What if . . . ?
The virtues of failure
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.
“By nature children are curious, but as we grow up much of our inquisitiveness ebbs. Almost all children in their natural state ask lots of questions. That’s how they learn so much in the first five years of life. But then we send them to school where they learn that answers are more important than questions. Creative geniuses like da Vinci, however, maintain that passionate curiosity throughout life, which results in a lifetime of creativity.”
Innovation, or creativity, appears to be the by-product of curiosity, which may entail many failures along the way to sometimes surprising success. CEOs are well served to foster both curiosity and innovation and take the failures in stride because many times they’re worth the result.
Innovation is a hot topic right now with the advent of so much artificial intelligence. To create a truly innovative product requires asking questions to develop creative alternatives.
1. Diamond J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. 1997.
2. Gelb M. How to think like Leonardo Da Vinci. Must Read Summaries; 2000.
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Innovative Leadership: Developing Curiosity
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