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Why you’re probably more innovative than you think you are

By Claudia Guembe Lapetra | December 16, 2021

10 ways to unleash a spirit of innovation in your organization.
Work Transformation|Inclusion-and-Diversity

Innovation has a branding problem. It’s a common buzzword in business, yet many of us think we are not particularly creative or innovative. That’s the story we have been telling ourselves for years – but it’s probably not true.

Many of us see a creative person as a special breed. That isn’t just misleading. It’s simply wrong. It’s a myth. Ask your parents what you were like when you were a little kid.

Did you ever find a different use for your bowl of cereal? A hat, perhaps?

Or did you build something out of Lego without following directions?

The conclusion is that we are all creative and our creativity flows through adulthood. Have you told your children a story about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy or the spaceship you flew as a kid? If you have, you are still creative.

Contrary to popular belief, creativity is not lost in adulthood and it’s not just for a few of us. It is intrinsic to every human being and is manifested in everyday adaptations and problem solving. No super talent is required.

But what’s the crucial difference between creativity and innovation? And what exactly do we mean by innovation?

Innovation is simply doing things differently in a way that adds value. The crucial distinction is that creativity is thinking up new things, while innovation is doing new things, according to author Theodore Levitt in "Creativity is Not Enough," 1963:

Creativity = Ideas
Innovation = Ideas + Action

So how can organizations think creatively to nurture innovation as a key driver of business growth? We’ve all heard the phrase adapt or die, and for businesses to achieve success in today’s complex world, this is a universal truth. Here are a several tips to consider:

  1. Question everything. Ask questions about everything, even the things you already think you know. Do some lateral thinking by asking, “What if?” Imagine we live in a perfect world where everything is possible. You will come up with amazing ideas once the normal constraints are lifted. Once you’ve got the vision, you just need to find a way of making it happen.
  2. Gain firsthand knowledge. Desk research will only take you so far. Only by getting out into the field and gaining firsthand knowledge from clients or users can you hope to really understand their pain points. From there, just dig deeper and deeper until you truly understand what’s keeping them awake at night.
  3. Observe behaviors. Don’t just ask clients; watch them. There are so many details that can be inferred in how clients react to certain situations or how they use products. Heinz noticed that people stored their ketchup bottles upside down, so they designed an upside-down bottle.
  4. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel. One of the best ways to innovate is to obtain inspiration from ideas or business models that work elsewhere and apply them to your idea. Think of how successful businesses operate, what can you learn from them? Do you have a product that could be used in a different way? Industrial diamond giant De Beers opened up a huge new market by inventing the modern-day engagement ring with the slogan “a diamond is forever.”
  5. Collaborate with third parties. Work with another company or start-up that can take you to places you can’t go. Choose a partner with a similar philosophy but different skills. That’s what Mercedes did with Swatch when they invented the Smart car.
  6. Diversity fuels innovation. A sense of complacency and sameness in thinking is more likely in homogeneous teams than in diverse teams. Differences among team members force each person to anticipate that there will be unexpected viewpoints to consider and evaluate, thus opening new doors and new opportunities.
  7. Apply SWOT analysis. Assess your idea based on your business’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Ask yourself questions such as “Can this weakness be minimized or eliminated?” or “How can we convert this threat into an opportunity?”
  8. Combine, minimize or maximize. Combine your product with something else to make something new. Think of a suitcase with wheels or a mobile phone with a camera. You can also try taking something that is standard in the industry and minimize or maximize it. Easyjet and Ryanair minimized price and customer service, while Starbucks did exactly the opposite.
  9. Be willing to take risks. According to former CEO of Procter & Gamble, A.G. Lafley, failed risks should be seen as gifts. He points out it’s important to “get past the disappointment and the blame and really understand what happened and why it happened. And then, more importantly, decide what you have learned and what you are going to do differently next time.”
  10. Fail fast. Failure is inevitable, but each failure will be an invaluable learning experience. The key is to learn fast, apply lessons learned quickly and make fast decisions that lead to improvements. Never expect immediate perfection. Thomas Edison did not fail at making a light bulb, he found 10,000 ways not to make one.

Let me say this again for the nonbelievers in the back: We are all creative and we can all innovate.

Radical innovation refers to the far-out, groundbreaking inventions that have become the popular face of innovation. We immediately think of people like Steve Jobs or Walt Disney, but they can be pretty tough role models to live up to.

Businesses should try to create a culture where every employee has an opportunity to innovate, not just the super-visionary. To do so, more emphasis should be placed on incremental innovation, which is often overlooked and is far more accessible. It’s about building on existing concepts, refining, expanding and improving them. Both types of innovation are needed in business to address today’s and tomorrow’s customers, and both require dedicated conditions, capabilities and mindsets in order to thrive.

At Willis Towers Watson, all colleagues have an opportunity to propose new ideas that will add value to our clients through our annual innovation challenge, Horizons. Selected ideas are granted funding and colleagues are coached in the development of their projects, from concept development and testing to launch and scale. Innovation is a key driver of our growth strategy, and our goal is to create an inclusive innovation culture where everyone is encouraged to think differently and has an opportunity to contribute to a brighter future.

What we call innovation at work is similar to what a child would call playtime: being curious, imagining a new possibility, trying a new approach to something. Not everyone has it in them to be a revolutionary – but an evolutionary? Absolutely.


Senior Associate, Corporate Innovation
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