How can we foster innovation in individuals?

There has been no shortage of research examining how to create innovative organizations.  A recent study from the University of South Florida examined both what innovation is, and how it can be cultivated, especially in us as individuals.

“Relatively little is known about how we can cultivate innovative thinking,” the authors say, “and even less is known about how we can help individuals use and improve their innovative powers.”

So what makes an individual innovative?  The authors pinpoint six key characteristics:

  • The timing of an innovative idea;
  • The environment in which the idea is formulated and developed;
  • The time to develop an idea or inspiration;
  • The time and organizational environment that allows for idea cross-fertilization;
  • Learning from errors; and
  • The development of an idea in one field that can be adapted in another.

Building on your raw material

The authors suggest that innovative capabilities are something we’re born with, and as such education can’t provide them per se, but rather education can help us to improve our ability to utilize our creativity.

It’s a topic that was touched on in a previous study that I covered earlier this year.  The researchers trawled through the Netherlands Twin Register, which covered 1,800 identical twins and 1,600 non-identical twins.

The register mentions the professions of each twin, with a specific coding provided for artistic professions, such as dance and theater.  In total, 233 of the twins fell into this category.

The team were hoping to discover whether both twins were equally likely to go into artistic livelihoods.  If the ratio is broadly similar for identical and non-identical twins, it would suggest that genes play a tiny role in our choice of career.

When the data was analyzed, it revealed that this was not the case, with identical twins more likely to engage in similar careers than their non-identical peers.  Indeed, there was a 68% chance of similarity in identical twins versus just 40% for non-identical twins, suggesting genes may contribute a fairly large amount.  In the end, the researchers pinned heritability as contributing 70% of our choice in careers.

The right environment

So if our genes do play a role in how creative we are, what can be done to support those of us without such fortunate genes?  The authors of the original study suggest that our environment is key.

“Contrary to the view that inspiration is purely mystic or divine, [it] is best viewed as an interaction between one’s current knowledge and the information one receives from the world,” they say. “We do not need to try to create innovative characteristics; rather, we simply need to show individuals how to cultivate innovative thought.”

A crucial first step, however, is to identify the traits that can be developed through education and ones environment.  The researchers suggest these include things such as abstract thinking and problem solving; a desire to ‘fill gaps’; motivation; creativity; curiosity; taking risks with no fear of failure; a positive attitude; persistence and passion; dissatisfaction with what exists; open-mindedness; and vision.

By identifying these traits, the researchers believe that educational processes can be geared towards boosting our innovative capabilities, or as the researchers say “to develop an educational process whereby we could show individuals how to fully utilize the [innovative] traits they have, [and] awaken traits that are dormant.

To put their theory to the test, the team are developing an experimental training program at the University of South Florida, with future publications due on the success, or otherwise, of these efforts.


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