The giant packaging company 3m expects every one of their staff to spend 15% of their time on innovating. This is not just innovating about new products and services but about new systems, new methods, and new procedures. That’s because in a fast-moving world, where people expect things to get better and better, and cheaper and cheaper, innovation is the answer to creative solutions and the route to getting ahead of the competition. The following are seven pathways to innovation.

Create an Innovative Climate

GoranEkvall of Lund University in Sweden has defined three conditions needed for a climate of innovation. They are: trust, dynamism, and humour. Ekvall came to this conclusion as a result of his research into the most innovative businesses in Sweden. One of Ekvall’s case studies was a Swedish newspaper where the team working on the women’s section consistently outperformed all the other teams. The reason? Quite simply, this group trusted one another, had a high level of energy and shared a common sense of humour.

Keep Your Open

Some of the major discoveries of the past have arisen by pure chance. In a lecture in 1822, the Danish physicist, Oersted, chanced to put a wire conducting an electric current close to a magnet and discovered an electric charge, thus paving the way to the discovery of electricity. In 1889, Professors von Mering and Minowski were operating on a dog when an assistant noticed a swarm of flies being attracted to the dog’s urine. When Minowski tested it, he found that the urine contained sugar. This was the breakthrough step towards a control drug for diabetes. In 1929, Alexander Fleming noticed that a contaminated culture of bacteria had stopped growing. This observation led to the discovery of penicillin and anti-biotics.

Dreams and Daydreams

We know from research that while we all dream on average four or five dreams a night, most of us are poor at recalling and making use of our dreams. It is a good idea to keep a notebook handy beside the bed to jot down our dreams. Goodenough found that those who do recall their dreams are less inhibited, less conformist and less self-controlled than those who don’t: in other words, dream-recallers are typical creative thinkers.

Develop washing-Up Creativity

According to the Roffey Park Management Insitute, most flashes of inspiration come to people when they are away from work and not forcing their conscious brains to find solutions to their problems. For some, ideas come while mowing the lawn or taking the dog for a walk or playing golf or waiting on a railway station. For Isaac Newton, it was an apple on the head while sitting in the garden. For Archimedes, it was in the bath. For others it’s while doing the dishes; that’s why Roffey Park calls it “washing-up creativity”.

Make New Connections

Making new connections between existing features of your product or service is a popular way to innovate. Akio Morita, chairman of Sony, said that he invented the Walkman because he wanted to listen to music while walking between holes on his golf course. His team simply put together two seemingly incompatible products: a tape recorder and a transistor radio.

Making new connections by forcing relationships can be a useful way to pick up on unconnected suggestions in a brainstorming session.

An ailing chain of hardware shops held a brainstorming session amongst its staff in which the following two suggestions, one serious and one silly, came up:

  • No 73: “set up a 24-hour tool repair service”
  • No 108: “put a trapdoor in the pavement so passers-by would have to drop in”.

After some discussion, the group proposed the idea of installing an oversized letter box in the shop front. Through this customers could drop any tools at any time of the day and night to be repaired and sharpened with a guarantee that they would be ready for collection within 4 hours of the shop opening in the morning.

Necessity is the Mother of Innovation

Necessity is a great spur to innovation. Take, for example, writing paper. The Chinese had already made paper from rags around the year 100 BC but because there was no need for it, nothing came of it. When it did reach Europe in the Middle Ages when writing became all the rage, the supply of rags and worn-out fabric soon dried up. That’s when a French naturalist made the discovery that wasps made their nests by chewing wood into a mash that dried in thin layers. Within 100 years, all paper was made using the idea of wood pulp.

Test , Test, Test

Product testing is the way most inventors and organizations go about innovation. It may not be the quickest route to success, but it is often the surest. Jonas Salk, for example, discovered the polio vaccine by spending most of his time testing and testing and continually finding out what didn’t work. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the filament light bulb, recorded 10,000 experiments that were complete failures. But he was able to keep going because, as he said, he knew 10,000 ways that it wasn’t going to work. As Woody Allen said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Adopt and Adapt

One relatively easy approach to innovation is to notice how others deal with problems and then adapt their solutions to your own. It’s known as “adapt and adopt”. It’s what watchmakers Swatch did when they realized that the more reliable their watches became, the less people needed to replace them. Their solution? Borrow an idea from the world of fashion and collections by turning their watches into desirable fashion accessories. Now people buy Swatch watches not just to tell the time but because it’s cool and trendy.

Take Lessons from Nature

If you really want to be inventive, you can’t beat nature. The world of nature gives us an endless supply of prototypes to use in our own world. Take Velcro, for example. Velcro was patented by Georges de Mestral in 1950 after he returned from a hunting trip covered in tiny burrs that had attached themselves to his clothing by tiny overlapping hooks. De Mestral quickly realized that here was an ideal technique to fasten material together. A whole new way of doing things was suddenly invented.

The history of the world is the history of innovation. Thomas Kuhn called each acceptance of a new innovation a “paradigm shift”. For once a new innovation becomes accepted, the world has changed forever and can never go back to the way it was.


Key Points/h2>

  1. Innovation in products, services and ways of working is an imperative in the modern global economy.
  2. One of the keys to innovative thinking is to have a creative sense of humour.
  3. Many of the most innovative ideas come when we are away from the workplace thinking about something else.
  4. Some of the best inventions come from combining existing products in new ways.
  5. To be successful with new ideas, you should expect to fail on a regular basis.
  6. Many of the most remarkable discoveries were made by imitating the natural world.