Do You Recognise Innovation Opportunities Staring You in the Face?


Do You Recognise Innovation Opportunities Staring You in the Face?

How I learnt to link the dots.

I studied architecture in Hungary in the 90’s, and I must admit that it wasn’t easy. If you want to become an architect there, you not only need to understand how to design buildings that are functional, aesthetic, and suited to the local context, but you also need to learn in detail how to construct them from the foundations to the roof. You essentially learn the skills of an entire project team – designer, town planner, structural engineer, mechanical engineer, construction manager, and many other specialists.

As you can imagine, we had many different subjects to study. And we were not spoon-fed. Our teachers were not too concerned that we might not be able to meet the mark, and trusting our resilience and ingenuity, they often left us to our own devices. Sometimes we needed to complete assignments and prepare for exams without the corresponding textbooks being available. And at times exam questions appeared out of the blue, bearing no relation to that subject’s study materials.

Some of my university mates froze when this happened. “This was not covered at class”, they moaned after submitting an incomplete test paper. Interestingly, I felt pumped. The situation forced me to actually think about everything I knew about architecture, as opposed to trying to recite isolated pieces of information taught under a certain subject. When I thought hard enough, I realised that I already knew the answers, I just needed to apply them in a new context. And because I had the guts to think outside the box, my results were often better than the results of those who spent more time cramming than I did.

While keeping up with the demands of my studies was challenging, I’m immensely grateful for having grown to be a professional in an environment where we were pushed to find our own resources. As improbable as it sounds, those student years in Eastern Europe in the 1990’s have prepared me quite well for the rules of business in Australia in the 2010’s.

Creative solutions often show up in disguise.

In today’s business, we won’t get far with compartmentalised thinking. We need to be versatile, see problems from many angles, and be able to empathise with people from all walks of life. We need to know a lot about a few things, and a little about a lot of things. But perhaps most importantly, we must look for and recognise solutions in improbable places.

In my own work as a workplace consultant, I frequently draw on experiences from seemingly unrelated parts of life to solve problems. And I must add, I really enjoy this aspect of my work. For example, I recently found a solution to the workplace culture issue some of my clients were facing, using the insights I gained from observing the way people behave on public transport. On another occasion, I developed strategies for promoting environmentally conscious behaviours in workplaces inspired by the learnings from marketing training.

However, my favourite example comes from a company called Design that Matters. They decided to tackle the terrible problem of infant mortality in the developing world. What makes this problem especially complicated is the fact that even when expensive medical devices are successfully sent to remote locations, locals don’t have the expertise and resources to fix them when a part breaks down.

So, the design team started to explore what skills and resources people in the developing world do possess in abundance and noticed that they seem to be great at keeping cars on the road. With this realisation, the designers started to experiment with building a neonatal incubator entirely from automotive parts – headlight, door chime, motorcycle battery, and so on – and eventually developed a multi-award-winning device called NeoNurture. Steven Johnson tells this story in greater detail in his fascinating TED talk, Where good ideas come from.

This is not only an inspiring story but a beautiful metaphor for how sometimes breakthrough innovations can be born from using commonplace solutions in unexpected ways.

Skills and situations are both important.

You don’t need to be a designer, and you certainly don’t need to be an ex-architect from Eastern Europe, to be able to innovate this way. You can learn and practise this skill, and good innovation consultants should be able to help you with this, if needed.

Nonetheless, your culture and work environment are just as important as your skills. I worked in companies in the past where work procedures and even the physical space were so rigidly structured that I was simply unable to get in touch with my non-work persona while at the office. Everything around me suggested that I had better conform to the norms and leave the quirky part of my personality outside. In contrast, I’ve also had the privilege of working at places where I simply could not stop myself from coming up with creative ideas inspired by my hobbies and personal experiences.

So here is my advice: If problem-solving and innovation are important aspects of your business, you might want to make it easier for yourself and your team to think beyond the boundaries of work and tap into potential solutions that already exist in other domains.

Creating a humane, engaging and stimulating work environment where people feel inspired to be their authentic selves can certainly help. You can find a few easy tips for creating these kinds of workspaces in my earlier Smallville article, How to create an environment that makes you feel whole.

If you have any interesting stories about solving work-related problems with ideas from outside your business, I’d love to hear how you’ve come across those ideas, and what you’ve achieved.

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