Nick Skillicorn, recently voted as the #7 innovation blogger in the world, knows a thing or two about making teams smarter, more agile, and more creative. Having founded his company Improvides back in 2013, and given a TEDx talk on creativity, he's a leading voice in the world of innovation.
Six questions with Nick Skillicorn:
1. What is your overall mission? What are you trying to achieve?
My ultimate aim is to ensure that everyone I work with, either directly through my consulting work or through the insights I write about, is able to get more value from their ideas. For some people this will lie in their ability to improve their creativity and generate something truly original and beautiful. And for others, especially in companies, it lies in helping them develop innovations which are not only more profitable than what they had previously produced, but which their customers love.
2. How do you define innovation?
Innovation is turning an idea into a solution which adds value to a customer. It is this second aspect to the definition which too many people do not fully understand. Just creating new products or doing things differently is not necessarily innovative. Different is not always better; but better is always different.
There are millions of examples of inventions, products or art out there which the inventor thought was a great idea, but which ultimately the rest of the world didn’t care much about, because other people didn’t see the value themselves as much as the creator did. And there are usually two reasons why this happens: either the focus on the idea was not on the people who would ultimately use it, or the idea was taken in its rough, ugly infancy and never changed into something better.
Often, it takes several rounds of experimentation and iteration on an idea and solution before customers actually begin to recognise the value it offers them. This is the process by which ideas become successful innovations.
3. How do you motivate yourself or others to generate good ideas or creative input?
There are many things which affect people’s ability to generate amazing ideas, but biology is not one of them. Too often people grow up thinking “I’m not a creative person”, when in fact only 30% of a person’s creativity is likely to be due to genetics. The vast majority is formed by their upbringing, their mental state and understanding what to do with ideas. And everyone can improve these and become better at generating truly special ideas.
I motivate others to be creative in a multitude of ways. One of the most effective things I’ve found is to explain the recent neuroscientific discoveries which have been made into how the brain actually forms ideas and what can improve this capability. Once people understand that it is part of them, and see the sort of mental blocks they have which are holding themselves back, many say they feel “like a veil has been lifted” and they feel more comfortable expressing their creative side.
The biggest change however is when you work with people to become more comfortable at generating the really special ideas. Everyone’s brain is programmed to come up with solutions to a problem in a specific sequence.
1. Memories which they know work (which aren’t new ideas at all)
2. Then you get variations on a memory which is still so close to the original to reduce the risk of it not working (what I refer to as boring ideas)
3. Only once you push past these boring variations is the brain forced into a new territory, coming up with solutions which could work. These are the original ideas, but will always be very rough around the edges and not quite ready to work
4. Then it takes time to refine these original ideas, sometimes even through experimenting on them. This is how you arrive at a really good, special idea. It takes time getting people comfortable in pushing through the boring ideas and ultimately getting to refined special ideas, but once they do then it becomes second nature.
4. How do you create an innovative culture?
Innovative culture starts from the top of the company. The strategy needs to be that senior management see the value in finding different ways to do business or get into new markets, and are willing to go into unknown territory to get to those goals. This is achieved by having a culture which does not punish individual experimental failures, but instead is willing to invest in trying new things, even though not everything will work out as expected. The very best innovation cultures allow everyone at the company to contribute towards this culture, either through suggesting ideas which are then reviewed and possibly implemented, all the way through to empowering and encouraging individuals to experiment.
The worst phrases in a company which will destroy an innovation culture include:
• “It probably won’t work”
• “That sounds risky”
• “Just do your job”
• “That’s not how things are done around here”
• “Yes, but it’s not in the current budget”
• “Maybe next year”
5. How do you continue and strive to be a leader in the field of innovation and creativity?
Never stop learning and pushing into new territory. When I started out, I noticed that a lot of the advice around innovation (and especially corporate creativity) didn’t go much further than motivational advice saying “let’s talk about how innovative 3M, Apple and Google are. You should be like them”. On the flip side, other advice was straight out of business school just referencing how to set up new companies. I wasn’t satisfied that this advice was actually delivering quality to clients, so I became determined to find out what made innovation work (and what made some efforts fail), and how creativity worked. My personal motto is that I want to pull innovation forward.
So I continue to seek out new insights every day from as wide a variety of sources as possible. Whether it comes by interviewing scientists on the forefront of creativity research, business leaders on instilling innovation within their firms or even other innovation experts on their unique views, I find that being open minded to different views is where I form connections between different ideas. I am also still investing thousands of hours and dollars into seminars, reading and education each year into staying at the forefront of research on creativity and innovation. This helps me ensure I’m never resting on my laurels and fall into the trap of giving the same advice to all companies, since every company’s situation and goals are going to be unique.
I’ve also seen a couple of trends which I believe show the direction which innovation consulting will be going. Companies are moving away from the traditional workshop format to build capabilities in their people, since these often result in little improvement once people get back to their work environment. Instead, companies and individuals are looking for coaching formats which can be accessed and executed in smaller “chunks”, with a focus on insights and action over a period of time. A lot of my focus for this year is adjusting my offerings to what the customers will be asking for, and delivering more of my work in these online coaching formats.
6. What emerging innovations or trends do you predict will have a big impact on the future?
I’m a big science geek, so often read about the breakthrough technologies which will shape the world of tomorrow. Things like customised medicine based on genetics, materials based on nanotechnology with amazing properties, fusion-powered electricity, space travel or the birth of Artificial Intelligence (and even Artificial Creativity).
But there are many other innovations and trends which are already beginning to affect the wider world, not just the wealthy who can spend $10,000 on an Apple Watch. Here are some of my favourites:
• Banking for the poor: One of the most powerful ways to help individuals and communities grow out of poverty is to enable them to manage their wealth and money. But for many of the world’s poorest people, traditional bank accounts are not an option due to location, documentation, understanding finances or even corruption in the system. This is where innovations which enable money to be held and transferred without cash are gaining traction and helping millions of people take control of their future. A great example is M-Pesa, which allows millions of people in Africa to pay & receive payment for almost any type of transaction using just SMS messages linked to their account.
• Valuing quality and experiences: One of the biggest trends in many developed countries is that people are moving away from the cheapest options available, instead choosing offerings which are still affordable but which put a higher emphasis on quality and sustainability. This is best exemplified by people eating less traditional fast food, and instead moving towards food trucks and Fast-Casual restaurants which use higher quality ingredients. Happening in parallel, especially among the younger generations, is a shift away from spending money on objects (cars, jewellery, fashion) and instead investing in themselves through experiences, like travel, culture, continued education and events which last as memories rather than status symbols.
• Personalised & curated technology: Smartphones have become both a blessing and a curse as they proliferated over the past few years. While they make it easier to communicate and find information instantly, they have actually begun taking up a larger proportion of time every day than previously existed with phones, email and other media. A surplus of messages, notifications and available media makes it difficult for people to choose what they want to do. This is why systems and applications which save people time (and stress) by learning about them and what they want to interact with are becoming so popular. Why search through every movie available on Netflix when the system can recommend ones it thinks you will like. Uber makes transportation as simple as pressing a button. In the coming years, these systems will become even better at helping you get just the information you care about and giving you back some of your precious time.
You can follow Nick on Twitter at @improvides, and check out his website to get a free copy of his ebook on why 96% of innovations fail to make an ROI for their companies.