The Five Discovery Skills of Innovators

In a post on the HBS blog titled How Do Innovators Think?, a pair of professors who interviewed 3,000 creative executives riff on the five skills common to all:

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.

Later, they talk about inquisitiveness and curiosity being paramount.

(thanks Zoelle Enger for sending)


Elsewhere in the world of creativity, the always-interesting David Shenk interviews pianist Keith Jarrett who "emphasizes, paradoxically, how critical it is to clear his mind and set himself free from his own knowledge and habits." To unleash new creative bursts, Jarrett tries to not do what comes naturally on the keyboard.

Also, here's a piece on how falling in love can make you more creative. Thinking about love causes us to think more "globally."

7 comments on “The Five Discovery Skills of Innovators
  • Regarding that quote from the How Do Innovators Think? article:

    “A number of the innovative entrepreneurs also went to Montessori schools, where they learned to follow their curiosity.”

    I don’t doubt that graduates of Montessori schools learn to follow their curiosity, but I wonder if my impression that some of them emerge as insufferable little egoists is connected to the supposed paradox that “brilliance breeds alienation.”

    I don’t find it astonishing “that, in order to tap into your most provocative creative possibilities, you need to not do what comes natural, not do what is most instinctive and habitual.”

    You would think this notion would come naturally and instinctively to mind when considering provocative creative possibilities, since Jarret implies the unconscious mind is the source of his creativity.

    The Platonist philosophy of mathematics holds that mathematics is not created but discovered, and I believe this applies as well to creative endeavor: our “creations” are pre-existing– Jarret merely discovers a certain combination of tones codified as improvisational music.

    “Jarrett emphasizes, paradoxically, how critical it is to clear his mind and set himself free from his own knowledge and habits.”

    I agree this attitude may be critical to free expression of creativity but it’s not paradoxical.

    However, a word combination like “zen habits”, for example, is very paradoxical– years of wall-gazing seldom yield real insight.

    Also, I would say to Zoelle Enger that the epitome of the strawberry grows wild, and the Albion strawberry from Dirty Girl produce, good as it may be, is but a pale imitation of its glory.;-)

  • Great study. I find that article extremely resonant.
    All 5 things listed have been focus points for me personally.

    What are your thoughts on the paragraph on Eureka Moments?
    It’s looks to be in conflict with your post here

    Though, I would say the writer of the post made it appear to be conflicting, but I bet if you asked the execs they interviewed, they would tell you they did have a creative spark where they were alerted to an opportunity but it only became innovative after the ideas was iterated

  • When I read the post a few days ago, my immediate response was that that none of this is false, but there’s far better stuff. Sure lateral thinking and questioning are imperative, but so what? Conventional, but not nearly as useful as recent study. The more cutting edge work of Theresa Amabile, who’s on the faculty of HBS, takes a more holistic and practical stance. In addition, she emphasizes as does Ideao, that creativity and innovation are fundamentally team sports.

  • I like the ability to experiment. It shows creativity and a vision that is open, oscillating and willing to expand. I think it’s often left out in the equation of innovators where usually questioning, details and making connections are included.

    As William Blake said, “The true method of knowledge is experiment…”

Leave a Reply to Dan Erwin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *