Innovation is learned behaviour

We have reviewed a ton of books on innovation and innovators on what it is and isn’t, and how to become one. This book gets stuck right in to identify where some of the problems lie.

Brainstorm Island

First off, many corporate innovation efforts are trapped on what the authors call, “Brainstorm Island”: “Like an annual innovation vacation, people are sent on a professionally facilitated offsite meeting, spending two colourful days brainstorming for ideas. After those two exceptional, invigorating days, however, they return to a workplace where nothing has changed, and by and large, fourteen days later, pretty much everybody is back to doing business as usual.”

Business as usual

This all sounds very familiar when Paddy Miller & Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg argue that, “Innovation involves doing something new or different, and this, in a sense, is where the trouble starts. “Business as usual,” that is, the opposite of innovation, is basically when people create results by doing old, well-known things, which is really great as long as they get the job done.”  The kind of innovation talked about in this book doesn’t “involve big, hairy, Nobel-Prize-winning game changers. It is about simpler, faster, fairly low-risk ideas that can create better results for your business, here and now, or at least within a few quarters. If nothing else, your people should pursue innovation as usual because it can help them win.” “We have all heard about burning-platforms, innovate-or-die and remember-what-happened-to-the-dinosaurs sermons.”  This book tackles what you really need to do.

Innovation is learned behaviour

Similar to Clayton Christensen in “The Innovators DNA” it’s all about cultivating the right behaviours. In that book authors Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen looked at the individual behaviours that made up good innovators. They demonstrated five key skills which separated them from other people.

  • Associating
  • Questioning
  • Observing
  • Networking
  • Experimenting

When engaged in consistently, these actions—questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting—triggered associational thinking to deliver new businesses, products, services, and/or processes. Most of us think creativity is an entirely cognitive skill; it all happens in the brain. A critical insight from their research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviours. This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviours, we can improve our creative impact.

Cultivate people

Miller and Wedell take this further and talk about the behaviours that the organisation needs to cultivate:

  • Focus beats freedom: Direct people to look only for ideas that matter to the business
  • Insight comes from the outside: Urge people to connect to new worlds
  • First ideas are flawed: Challenge people to tweak and reframe their initial ideas
  • Most ideas are bad ideas: Guide people to select the best ideas and discard the rest
  • Stealthstorming rules: Help people navigate the politics of innovation
  • Creativity is a choice: Motivate everyone to persist in the five keystone behaviours

Miller and Wedell are immersed in innovation and corporate creativity globally. Ultimately they say,” companies are abstractions; only people see, feel, live, and think, or are motivated to innovate”.

Behaviour = personality × environment

“Behaviour can be understood as the result of the interaction between two things: who we are, and the situation we are in. However, if you look at many of today’s writings on leadership, you might think that personality was the only factor in the equation because, in the discussion of how to drive sustained behaviour change in companies, many change makers tend to focus on changing the way people think”

The challenge

One of the problems with innovation is the whole piece on ideas and suggestions that become “awash in a torrent:”

  • of barely disguised complaints (“increase our salary please”),
  • of mundane suggestions (“more vegetarian options in the cafeteria”),
  • of wistful thinking (“let’s stop having meetings”),
  • if unfiltered blue-sky rubbish (“let our customers decide how much they want to pay for our products”),
  • and the occasional, (“reduce executive pay levels”).

They go on to talk about successful behaviour change. “Success depends on persuading hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals to change the way they work, a transformation people will accept only if they can be persuaded to think differently about their jobs. In effect, CEOs must alter the mind-sets of their employees—no easy task.”

The problem

According to the mind-set approach, “your job as a leader is first and foremost of a rhetorical nature: it is to persuade, to alter mind-sets, to change values, and to make people think differently. As a consequence, leaders have treated many innovation efforts as challenges of communication: of convincing, cajoling, storytelling, and explaining why innovation is necessary.”

The outcome

They cite all too typical outcomes “Managers hire motivational speakers to boost morale and re-energise their people as if they were electrical toys in need of fresh batteries. Expansive values programmes are initiated, training programmes are run, and hordes of hapless employees are sent to change management courses to “let go of their fear of change.”

The answer

Innovation as usual’s primary question to get the right answer is “If the people in your company suffer from a widespread lack of innovative behaviour, you have to ask yourself: is that really a mindset problem? Or is it perhaps a systems problem?” From their experience, they say “all these innovation approaches share a failure to leverage the single most powerful source of influence on people’s behaviour: the organisational environment in which they work.”


To have any hope of bringing about change in organisations they argue:

  • You have to get much more operational and hands-on in defining the key behaviours you want people to adopt.
  • When pursuing innovation in a regular workplace, the cardinal rule is this: focus beats freedom.
  • Insight comes from the outside.
  • Most cited barriers to innovation “no formal strategy for innovation” and “lack of clear goals/priorities.”
  • Goals, priorities, and strategies for innovation are three different things, but what they share is this: they give employees an answer to the question, “What should I focus on?” Instead of “think outside the box”
  • Without a clear and shared notion of the desired outcome—first at the leadership level, and then among the employees—chances are that innovation efforts won’t have much impact.
  • When looking for good ideas, people tend to look toward two things: future trends and new technology. Most ideas aren’t in fact invented from scratch. They are instead “recombinant innovation”, that is, ideas that are pieced together by combining existing bits of knowledge in new ways.
  • To produce an idea with an immediate appeal in the marketplace, the single best thing you can do is to identify a significant unmet need or problem that customers share


And finally a nice little dig for all in marketing. “The key problem with marketing people is that they spend too much time trying to be understood, and too little time trying to understand.” – Ouch!

Review here



sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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