Like most of us, I assumed that the ability to be innovative was somewhat innate, like creativity. If we’re left brain we’re creative and innovative, if we’re right brain we’re not.

It seems I was wrong, affirming that old expression about assumptions and how they make a ‘you know what’ of you and me. Jeff Dyner, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christesen, authors of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators claim that innovation relies on five skills: skills that can be learned by anyone interested in fostering innovative thinking and problem solving.

The book, published by Harvard Business Review Press, is based on the authors research on some of the world’s most innovative companies. They discovered five skills common to all innovative leaders:

  1. questioning

  2. observing

  3. networking

  4. experimenting

  5. associating

At the foundation of developing an innovative mindset is the requirement to move away from a fear based, ‘support the status quo’ mindset, to an attitude of curiosity, openness and engagement.

The innovative leaders ask challenging questions. They watch the behaviour of customers, suppliers and competitors to identify new ways of doing things. Rather than network with others that “look like them”, they embrace the true wealth offered by diversity. They seek opportunities to talk to people with different life experiences and perspectives. They try new things, construct interactive experiences and build prototypes to gain new insights. They look for associations within unrelated fields to discover unexpected connection in places one might not expect to find them.

The authors term these skills as discovery skills. Their research shows that CEO’s in innovative companies spend 50% more of their personal time engaged in discovery skills than do CEO’s in less innovative companies.

I often talk about curiosity being the foundation of a respectful attitude. Questioning and observing allow us to demonstrate both curiosity and respect. As I argue in Road to Respect, a respectful, relationship based (associating) leadership promotes creativity and innovation. The workplace culture is characterized by relationships that cross both functional and hierarchical power lines as well as constructive conflict, where different or divergent opinions can be openly expressed and discussed.

So next time you have a challenging problem to solve, adopt a respectful attitude characterized by the five discovery skills described above. Not only will you end up with an unexpected and innovative solution, you’ll reap the added bonus of developing relationship in the process.