Sunday, August 7, 2011

Associational Thinking

A recent post and article in Forbes, by Clayton Christensen and colleagues, presented results of research on innovative companies. Their focus was development of a method to rank and evaluate publicly traded companies with a measure called The Innovation Premium. But to me, the really important ideas that come from their new book, The Innovator's DNA, and the article, are the five skills of disruptive innovators quoted below.

Questioning allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities;
Observing helps innovators detect small details—in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things
Networking permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds;
Experimenting prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas;
Associational thinking—drawing connections among questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields—is triggered by questioning, observing, networking and experimenting and is the catalyst for creative ideas.

I guess that professionals in architecture and engineering firms might very well think this article is mainly a consideration for corporate businesses, but because we are trained as creative professionals, we think that innovation is really our normal game. However that may be an arguable point. The five skills of disruptive innovators, along with the "3P's" of people, processes and philosophies, frame their understanding of the DNA of innovative organizations and provide a structure for all to assess their real innovation potential. It is a good message to understand.

Further on in the article, they ask the question "what does the average company need to achieve in these areas to spark an innovation premium?" They then lay out an answer for architectural and engineering firms to consider.

Fundamental change within senior managers (some mastery of the five discovery skills); changes in how their innovation project teams work (processes that support innovation); and changes in philosophies that foster the belief that innovation really is everyone’s job. Rare is the leader who fully grasps how to embed the 3Ps deeply enough into a company’s culture to create a powerful, positive innovation premium.

The takeaway for me in this innovation story is the importance of associational thinking. Let's take this research from the business world and related industries, and transfer it to architectural and engineering practices as the design industry deepens the growth of innovation and new ideas for the built environment.

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