When people talk about innovation, the focus is often on ideation. Whether it’s generating more ideas or generating better ideas, it’s the idea, the spark that people talk about. Come up with the right thought, and it solves your problem.
But that’s only half the solution.
What’s also important creative people to cultivate ideas and execute them, writes Andrea Ovans in her Harvard Business Review piece, “Is Innovation More About People or Process?”
Obviously, this is a false dichotomy (as Ovans points out herself at the end of her piece). All the talent in the world isn’t going to polish a lousy idea into a life-altering concept, and no matter how great an idea is, it won’t go anywhere without the right people behind it. “Talented people can be hobbled by poor processes; hesitant people can be uplifted by smart processes,” she writes.
Still, people tend to focus too much on the idea side of the equation, and not enough on the people. Ovans cites proponents (mostly from creative industries) behind the “hire creative people and they’ll come up with the ideas” notion, such as Pixar founder Ed Catmull.
“The view that good ideas are rarer and more valuable than good people is rooted in a misconception of creativity,” Catmull writes. “A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing.”
Granted, not everyone is making a movie. But even so, the principle remains the same: A project is never a single idea. It’s the combination of many ideas from many people, and if some of the people in one area aren’t on the ball, they can end up dooming an otherwise great idea.
Innovative companies are filled on average with far more people who excelled at the skills related to idea discovery, and who were wiser than less innovative companies about the strategic use of discovery-driven people, notes The Innovator’s DNA.
Moreover, even the proponents of the “idea-generation” side tend to be predicated on having a bunch of people who can actually dream up ideas using the processes.
The design firm IDEO, for example, is often thought of as having great innovative practices, but the practices work because of the people. “IDEO as an enterprise is far less about the art of innovation than about a culture of innovation,” writes Michael Schrage in Harvard Business Review. “How IDEO brainstorms, how it rapidly prototypes both ideas and products, how it sets up and runs design teams—all are the antithesis of a cookie-cutter, replicable process. What’s more, the people IDEO (carefully) hires either enjoy the firm’s crazy ‘We-need-ten-ideas-a-minute-and-don’t-forget-the-deadline-for-the-design-is-Wednesday’ atmosphere or else they don’t last.”
Ultimately, the biggest reason to focus on people is that companies already have more ideas than they can use—they just aren’t making use of them properly, writes David Burkus in Harvard Business Review. “It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem,” he writes, citing examples such as how Kodak didn’t follow up on the idea of a digital camera and Xerox didn’t exploit many of the inventions it came up with at Xerox PARC. (Not to mention Hewlett-Packard, which turned down Steve Wozniak five times about making a personal computer.)
This notion of identifying creative people isn’t new. Science writer Isaac Asimov wrote as long ago as 1959 that what’s really needed in creativity is not just people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between two items that might not ordinarily seem connected—because if it were obvious, someone else would have figured it out already.
“It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable,” Asimov writes.
“A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others. Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits.”
Now you just have to figure out how to bullet that in a job description.
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