• 01.12.10

The How-To Guide to Innovation

Calling someone a “creative type” these days would be a misnomer. That implies that creativity is an innate personality trait, whereas it may really be just a lesser taught school of thought, according to Jeffrey Dyer, a professor at Brigham Young University’s School of Management, who just finished a study on how innovation at top companies actually works.


Fittingly, Dyer’s methodology wasn’t super creative. He interviewed magnates like Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, and Michael Dell to find commonalities in their thought processes about business strategy and product development. Then, Dyer surveyed a troop of 3,500 top executives who had either founded innovative companies or launched gotta-have-it products to figure out which traits widely matched. The result is a practical five-step manual to thinking outside the box.


1. But we’re not going to share it with you. Or maybe we are. You’ll need to sort that out. Why? Because Dyer says creatives must question every assumption. Like, for instance, how bullet-pointing a generalist lesson plan for how to make bright ideas might actually ruin a subconsciously organic process. What if we all thought we were being smart to suss this out only to create a new conceptual status quo?

2. Dyer also says that you should patiently observe the way others tinker with products and services–like, say, a Fast Company writer trying share cheeky information in a list without being rote–to see the not always obvious ways they use things to stay stimulated. Focus on what is different than you expected.

4. Experiment. Deconstruct a product or process to see how it works–especially if that feels outside your comfort zone. You might figure out a new way to organize everything to make it more compelling, speedy, versatile or marketable.

3. For example, a good friend–a song writer, actually–once taught me that people will listen more carefully, or in this case maybe just read on, if you offer them an unexpected way to tell the story (like maybe inverting your list lessons or something). Dyer also supports this sort of networking, seeking others beyond your industry to figure out how they come up with and test out good ideas.

5. Now pause for a second. This is really more of an osmosis moment. Think about how everything you just read only works if you put it all together. That’s called associating. (For example, if you just skipped to the end of this post, then you have no idea what I’m taking about.) True inspiration comes from actively examining your life as much as your company–questioning, observing, experimenting, networking and mulling over how it all works together until … Eureka!

[Via Infozine, Image: / CC BY 2.0 ]

About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.