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How To Train Your Brain To Be More Innovative

It turns out that you can teach yourself to be more innovative after all.

How To Train Your Brain To Be More Innovative
[Photo: Alma Haser/Getty Images]

When we think about an innovative person, our focus is often on their achievements: How they’ve changed their industry, how their big idea is disrupting the landscape that they’re operating in, or the scale and impact of their innovative practices.

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What we don’t normally consider is the thought process they went through. We hear a lot about why we need to innovate, but not how we can actually do it.

Victor Poirier, a professor at the Institute of Advanced Discovery & Innovation at the University of South Florida, recently published a research paper in collaboration with nine of his colleagues that looks at the thought process behind innovation. The paper argues that innovation is a series of steps, and that innovators possess certain characteristics. Every individual possesses some of those characteristicsthough to varying degree—and Poirier’s work looks at what those characteristics are, and how we can “awaken” them in order to unleash our own innovative genius.

According to Poirier’s research, here are a few things we can do to help train our brains to be more innovative.

Don’t Wait For Inspiration To Strike, Create It

A-ha moments don’t just appear out of thin air. They follow five steps:

  1. Inspiration
  2. Creativity
  3. Motivation
  4. Entrepreneurship
  5. Innovation

Inspiration can strike systematically or spontaneously, but it often occurs after someone has already thought about whatever it is that inspires them. For example, you might be having trouble finding a solution to a problem you’re facing at work. Say you’re responsible for organizing the monthly meeting for your big team, but you find yourself spending a lot of time flicking between calendars, because there’s always a last-minute scheduling conflict. You talk to your colleagues, and then a few days later you realize that the best solution would be to get your whole team to download the Slack scheduling bot that automatically syncs everyone’s calendars and schedules meetings for you. 

This solution didn’t appear out of nowhere—you let your brain “brew” the information and thoughts and then were able to tap into your creativity and arrive at a solution. In the paper, creativity is defined as “the ability to think about the world in new ways, to think from a clear, open perspective, and to be unencumbered by existing knowledge.” Sometimes a little bit of time is needed to have this perspective, because being too close to the problem can prevent identifying obvious solutions. 

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Related:  7 Essential Lessons From The Harvard Innovation Lab


Of course, ideas without actions aren’t all that useful. So the next step requires you to implement the solution and see whether it provides the value you thought it would—the way an entrepreneur validates their business ideas by testing the market. When the group that you’re trying to help “accepts” your solution, it becomes innovation. Going back to the scheduling example, it’s on you to get your team to download the Slack bot, and also to make sure that you obtain feedback from your team and assess whether it does in fact save you time. If the feedback is positive and you find yourself with more free time as a result, your small solution becomes “innovation.”

Cultivate Your Innovative Traits

Like creativity, there’s a belief that innovative people are just born that way. That’s not necessarily true, according to Poirier.

He tells Fast Company, “Almost everybody [has] innovative traits. Some people use them, some people don’t. [I did this research] to make people aware of what traits people do have, wake up dormant traits that they don’t even know they have, and prove the utilization of those traits.”


Related: Three Lessons On Innovation I Learned During My 12 Years At Apple 


Some of these traits, which Poirier lists in his research paper, include the ability to think abstractly, having deep and broad knowledge, curiosity, openness to risk, grit, and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

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Poirier believes that working on cultivating the traits that already exist in an individual can lead to a greater ability to be innovative. Poirier and his colleagues at the institute are currently testing and developing ways in which they can teach individuals to do this.

If you see any of the above traits in yourself, you can deliberately seek out experiences to put those traits to use. For example, if you think that you possess grit but want to strengthen it, make it a habit to work on a project or goal from start to completion, and be ready to identify alternative paths if your current one isn’t working.

Put Yourself In Environments That Are Conducive To Innovation

It’s probably no surprise that your environment plays a major part in developing the innovative characteristics you possess, and determines how often you use them.

Poirier notes, “It depends a lot on your background and where you grow up and what you’re exposed to. If your parents are very intelligent, you will probably have more traits, and utilize those traits.”

Of course you can’t change the circumstances of your upbringing, but as an adult, we have more of a choice in the kinds of people that we surround ourselves with.

You’ve probably heard the saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, and this idea also applies in innovation. When you surround yourself with others who possess high levels of innovative traits and constantly use them, you yourself are likely to do the same.

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Have Some Ego, But Not Too Much

Ego is often viewed negatively—after all, we’ve seen too many examples of entrepreneurs who lost their way as a result of excessive ego

But Poirier believes that a little bit of ego can be helpful in creating innovation. “Ego makes people do things that they wouldn’t normally do. For instance, if a group of individuals are trying to solve a problem or create a solution, ego can motivate you to concentrate more, to work hard, to do better than the people around you. They really take the extra effort just because it makes them feel much better and superior to other people.”

Poirier notes, however, that there is a point at which ego stops being beneficial. “You can go to the other extreme, and think you’re great when you’re really not.”

Innovators might be born, but they can also be made and trained. Thomas Edison trained himself to be innovative by testing out all the ways to make a light bulb that didn’t work before finally landing on a method that did, and we can train ourselves to be innovative by cultivating certain characteristics and surrounding ourselves with the right people in the right environment.

About the author

Anisa is the Editorial Assistant for Fast Company's Leadership section. She covers everything from personal development, entrepreneurship and the future of work.

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