Feb 24, 2015
Originally published on February 13, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/leadership/you-dont-have-to-be-creative-to-be-a-brilliant-innovator/article22914969/
I take pride in the fact that I’ve never had a creative idea in my life.
You might think that’s an odd thing to be proud of, especially for an innovation advocate. But it’s just good sense.
Why am I so candid about admitting this apparent shortcoming? Because I see far too many business leaders who shy away from introducing initiatives simply because they think they have to be creative to be an innovator. It’s simply not true.
Creativity is defined as ‘thinking of new ideas.’ Innovation is the translation of new ideas into a market-ready product, process or service. Nowhere in the definition of innovation does it say that you need to be the one who is doing the ‘thinking.’ I recommend something far simpler and much cheaper: listening.
I rediscovered the importance of the lost art after reading an article by Dianne Schilling. She says that listening has become “a rare gift — the gift of time. It helps build relationships, solve problems, ensure understanding, resolve conflicts, and improve accuracy. At work, effective listening means fewer errors and less wasted time.”
Another benefit of listening is that it can provide you with the raw material of innovation: ideas. By listening to your customers and to prospects you meet in formal presentations, tradeshows and industry functions, you’ll hear the best ideas possible: those expressed by people with pressing challenges and the money to fix them. By asking a few questions and actively listening, you’re learn about their problems and unmet needs. Once you truly understand the details of their challenges you’re halfway to solving them – and that’s what innovation is all about.
After mastering the art of listening, there’s one more tool to adopt so as to really master the innovation field: empathy. This isn’t just about feeling someone else’s pain. It’s about sharing that pain, and ultimately finding ways to take it away.
As Ms. Schilling notes: “To experience empathy, you have to put yourself in the other person’s place and allow yourself to feel what it is like to be her at that moment.”
What’s your motivation? Sales, of course. The better you become at understanding your customers’ challenges and frustrations, the more effective you will be at innovating solutions for them. And isn’t that what customers pay you for?
Understanding people’s real problems and needs requires special talent or effort. In Daniel Pink’s book To Sell is Human, he discusses a California high school teacher named Larry Ferlazzo, who uses a research tactic called attunement. “It’s about leading with my ears instead of my mouth,” says Ferlazzo. “It means trying to elicit from people what their goals are for themselves, and having the flexibility to frame what we do in that context.”
As entrepreneurs and business leaders, we can use listening skills and empathy to drive teams or entire organizations to continuously produce new products or services. This is where my strengths and those of many other business leaders, come in. We turn thoughts into action. We may not be especially creative, but we know how to mobilize a team and apply resources to get things done.
Some of the world’s most successful products derive more from listening than from blank-canvas creativity.
Consider the smartphone. The first mobile phones were big and clunky and did just one thing – send and receive phone calls. Making them smaller wasn’t creative genius, but the product of vigilant, ongoing improvement. Mobile phone makers didn’t invent clocks or cameras, but they saw an opportunity and incorporated both into mobile phone handsets. When was the last time you saw a teenager wearing a watch or carrying a camera? Another smart person listened to teens and realized they don’t do much talking on their phones. The innovative solutions were instant messaging and texting, Twitter and Instagram. Presto, a simple product designed for talking has morphed into a ubiquitous appliance that allows people to stay in touch with each other without talking.
I would argue that creativity had little to do with this evolution. Mobile phone innovation owes its success to the people who listened to the marketplace and understood enough to say, “If we add a clock and a camera and a keyboard, everyone will buy this.”
Listening carefully is the soul of innovation and the reason I take some pride in not being creative. I’m good at listening to customers, empathizing with their problems and project-managing a solution. They don’t pay me to make stuff up.