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Learning from Innovative Executives

September 29th, 2009

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What qualities do the best innovators share? Researchers at Brigham Young conducting a six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives identified five core skills that differentiate them: Associating, Questioning, Observing, Experimenting, and Networking. Professor Jeff Fryer defines these characteristics here in an interview with Harvard Business Review:

“The first skill is what we call ‘associating.’ It’s a cognitive skill that allows creative people to make connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas. The second skill is questioning — an ability to ask ‘what if,’ ‘why,’ and ‘why not’ questions that challenge the status quo and open up the bigger picture. The third is the ability to closely observe details, particularly the details of people’s behavior. Another skill is the ability to experiment — the people we studied are always trying on new experiences and exploring new worlds. And finally, they are really good at networking with smart people who have little in common with them, but from whom they can learn.”

When you boil it all down, as fellow Brigham Young professor Hal Gergensen does, it really comes down to inquisitiveness. The most innovative executives are also the most inquisitive. They continually ask questions, make connections, push deeper, and draw upon outside sources for inspiration.

So how do we all adopt this skill set and benefit from it in our own work? The trouble is, for many of us it seems that at some point during our education – whether formal or on-the-job – we lose the inquisitiveness inherent to us as young children. Either it’s not rewarded sufficiently or we simply unlearn it, so to speak.

At Braithwaite, we strive to overcome this through extra touches intended to spark curiosity, creativity, and innovation – both during internal brainstorms and sessions with clients. We shun traditional conference rooms in favor of communal couches. We fill the room with children’s toys – from Etch A Sketches to Slinkys to Koosh balls – to promote playful and out-of-the-box thinking. We’ll do role playing and sketch ideas out on paper. We’ll even set up a corporate campfire to share company stories.

We’ve found that if you create the right kind of environment, encourage the sharing of new ideas, and reward curiosity, you can set up the ‘Eureka!’ moment that triggers innovation.

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