What is the most important innovation skill I should practice?

question to innovate

This the eighteenth of a series of weekly posts where I will answer a few common questions about innovation. Please feel free to add your own response. Also, if you have any questions you think we should discuss, let me know.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to interview the authors of The Innovators DNA. One of the questions that I asked them was: Of the five skills, is there one skill in particular that is more important than all others? Why?

Before the other core innovation skills, the ability to associate is the most important innovation skill you need to master. Associating, or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA.

Before, I’ve talked about how not being able to free associate is an innovation red flag. Why is being able to free associate more important than the other skills? Because it directly related to your cognitive ability. The more diverse knowledge the brain possesses, the more connections it can make when given fresh inputs of knowledge, and fresh inputs trigger the associations that lead to novel ideas.

Another way to look at this, is that you integrate ideas. Here is how Roger Martin, co-author of Game Changer, puts it:

“There are many different ways of thinking, including linear, conceptual, inductive, deductive and integrative. For innovation, integrative thinking is more central for success. As Roger Martin (Dean I mentioned) puts it, ‘an integrative thinker finds unobvious connections and patterns from a diverse set of factors. They see more things as relevant and important, such as contradictions in what customers say and what they actually do. They then bring it all together by synthesizing and translating salient information into simple insights that lead to action. Integrative thinkers are creative problem solvers because they find solutions to break the tensions of opposing ideas.”

Put simply, if you don’t have ideas to connect, you won’t come up with new ideas.

How can you practice free association? Here are a few ways:

  1. Put two things together that don’t go together. For example, Mexican Lucha Libre and Jack Black gives you Nacho Libre. This shouldn’t go together, but in a strange and interesting way, it does. Here’s a test for you: Combine chocolate chip cookie + water. What does that give you?
  2. Use the SCAMPER method:

SCAMPER creativity technique

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