Can Innovation Be Learned?

I have the great fortune of living in Santa Fe, New Mexico (a southern city in the USA, not Mexico) that in 2005 was named the first city in the United States as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)-designated city of craft and folk art (https://youtu.be/3LcJUYHbR6k). The group of UNESCO Creative Cities are chosen by application for innovation, investment, and community in a range of arts and creativity. Which means that for the first time in my life I am surrounded a city populated primarily by creatives.

As an innovation professional, I am often asked if innovative behavior is learned or comes naturally, with the majority of people saying it comes naturally. Afterall, as I have learned living in this highly creative city, artists are born artists, and musicians are born musicians; or are they? In this article, we consider the question of whether innovation can be learned.

Born or made?

To illustrate a point about creative types (artists, musicians, or actors), let’s consider a generic writer named Doug. Doug was born knowing how to write of course. “Of course not” would be the correct statement. No baby is born to write, but it is likely that in fact Doug was born with an ability to tell stories and to observe the world around him. The ability to write was most likely training that allowed him to express himself in words. Therefore, we know that although Doug was born with the ability to tell stories, he had to learn to write.

In a second case, let’s take a musician we will call Cassie. Cassie enjoyed music as a baby and wrote her first song at two. Of course, Cassie didn’t write a song when she was two since she likely didn’t even know what music was, just that she enjoyed it. In my personal life here in Santa Fe, I am working with a successful 70’s rock star on his biography. While he never learned to read or write music, he did have to learn to play a guitar. The process of learning the guitar took him years of hard work. Yes, he had the passion to play the guitar, but he had to learn it and spend countless hours alone in his room until he was able to translate his passion for music to something that sounded like music on his guitar. Granted, he also took a few lessons along the way by someone who was just an instructor and not a star.

The closest we have to being born with creative talent might be the artist. But even here, one would not expect an infant, or even a toddler to simply start to paint or sculpt. There are rare occasions when this happens, but generally artists go to art school to learn their craft, their technique, and their style. I have heard countless artists here in New Mexico talk about the many styles of art they had to work with before they found the one that “spoke” to them. As they explain it, they had to try watercolors, sculpture, oil paints, design, and multiple styles including Impressionism, Cubism, Baroque, Expressionism, Surrealism, Romanticism, Art Nouveau, Abstract, and Conceptual, before they found the one that “spoke to them”. This also means that they may have “sucked” at every other form until they found the right one. This equates to training and experience.

Repression versus Suppression

Psychology tells us that suppression and repression are different. Repression is the process of unwanted impulses or thoughts being unconsciously pushed out of awareness. Suppression is deliberately trying to forget or not think about painful or unwanted thoughts. So, if someone were to experience repression of their innovative self might represent what many believe is the educational system pushing one to conform. Innovative impulses might mean that you unconsciously force yourself NOT to be innovative or creative.

So, this brings us to innovation. We in the innovation world often talk about everyone being born creative. Most of us marvel at the creativity of children and talk of the system beating creativity out of them. But what if it never left us? What if we simply repressed our creativity? Is it possible that all of us are naturally innovators who have simply repressed our creativity? What would be required to bring those impulses back to our conscious mind?

As artists, musicians and writers would likely admit, they had to be freed of their repression, which is something I have worked with companies to do in the past. The program I implement is called the “invitation to innovate”. Or stated another way, we give our workforce permission to let go of repressed creativity. This permission can be granted by the individual themselves, or more in the context of this discussion, by the company executives. This can be equated with my rock star friends parents begrudgingly buying him his first guitar, thereby approving of him pursuing his creativity.

Too many organizations simply tell their employees to innovate without giving them permission to do so. At one organization I consulted with, management constantly asked the workforce to be more innovative and creative. Unfortunately, in the past they had fired employees who tried to communicate new ideas and approaches and, in the process, shaking up the status quo; a true killer of innovation.

Finally, since our past lives may discourage us to be creative, we never really learned how to be innovative. We never learned how to harness the energy that comes from our creative selves in a manner that lead to the creation of something new, novel, and unique. This is particularly true of energetic kids, who universally are not as able to control their impulses at a young age and are sometimes “shut down” and labelled as troublemakers. Treated as troublemakers and told to sit down and be quite may be one of the biggest problems children face in education systems today. This isn’t to say that those who are better able to control their impulses are less innovative, but better control of your impulses are definitely a plus in today’s K-12 systems.

Recovering and Rechanneling Imagination

Ideally an organization decides (and they don’t always) that the organization needs to allow for repressed imagination to blossom. Organizations that do so unfortunately might find that they are flooded with hundreds of ideas, just like a toddler that runs around constantly asking “why”. While many would argue that there are no bad ideas, one who has ever raised a toddler knows that it can drive you crazy and most organizations can find that in this stage things can get out of hand. This leads us to why we need to teach innovation.

Innovation is a process (or as I like to call a “science”) of generating ideas, evaluating them and getting them to market, while all the while graciously efficiently killing the bad or unworkable ones without discouraging even more ideas. As the parent of a toddler learns, the best way to get the toddler past the “why” stage is to help them to critically evaluate the world. This is true with innovation. Freeing your employees repressed creative tendencies and giving them the tools to critically evaluate those idea might be reasonably compared to teaching a teenager to drive. The freedom and opportunity bestowed by a driver’s license must be accompanied by drivers’ education and maturity. Freeing your employees of repressed creativity must come with the training to know how to productively use that newfound freedom.

Innovation training is that critical because you do not want to be driven crazy by too many ideas that are not well thought out and evaluated, but you also do not want to kill the creativity you unleashed when you gave them the invitation to innovate.

January 18, 2024

Dr. Brett Trusko
Director, Board of GIMI-IAOIP
Editor-in-Chief
International Journal of Innovation Science

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