How to Become a More Successful Innovator

Frank L. Fazzalari, MD, MBA
Assistant Professor of Surgery, Department of Cardiac Surgery, University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor
Chair, STS Workforce on Practice Management

STS News, Summer 2014 -- People and organizations must innovate in a changing world. In fact, innovation is the best way organizations can achieve sustained growth. This applies to the entire discipline of cardiothoracic surgery. 

Although they are similar concepts (both are creative processes), it is useful to differentiate innovation from invention. Innovation is the process of combining previously separate ideas or technologies in useful and valuable ways; invention is the actual creation of the product or process. Many of the tools we use in cardiothoracic surgery are incredible examples of  innovation: vascular anastomosis, blood oxygenators and pumps, minimally invasive instruments and cannulae, and
percutaneous devices.

Innovation doesn’t only apply to devices and hardware. Innovation can also occur in the ways we do things and solve problems. Examples include the surgical checklist and clinical quality collaboratives.

Not all of us are great inventors, but most of us can be innovators. Research has shown that innovation may be a skillset that can be learned or developed.

Dyer et al1 examined the characteristics of hundreds of innovators and discovered some commonalities that were not present in noninnovators. The innovators, most importantly, displayed the courage to innovate. This means that they frequently challenged the status quo, often asked “Why?” or “Why not?”, and were much more likely to take intelligent risks.

Additionally, the innovators practiced associative thinking. They had the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas from disparate arenas and disciplines. Albert Einstein called this process “combinatorial play” and saw it as foundational for
creative thinking. Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is connecting things.” Innovators make novel combinations by seeing a finer level of detail than most people, yet at the same time are able to view the big picture.

The researchers found that using four cognitive or “discovery skills” can enhance and lead to associative thinking:  Questioning, Observing, Networking, and Experimenting. These are behaviors that anyone can follow to develop his or
her associative thinking skills.

Innovators ask questions. They challenge conventional wisdom and the status quo by asking how things are, why they are that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. They follow up with why and why-not questions: Why can’t we do this differently? Why isn’t this available? Why has no one tried this before?

Edwin Land’s 3-year-old daughter asked him why  the picture he’d taken of her wasn’t available immediately. This spurred Land to wonder if developing photographs instantly was possible—a question that led to the Polaroid camera.

Innovators ask questions that provoke new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions. They believe good  questions are as important as good answers.

Innovators examine everything. They pay attention to how things work, what doesn’t work, and why. Innovators study how people solve problems, closely watching how people perform a task to see if the process could be improved. They find
“common threads” in activities that may seem unconnected at first. They observe how things work and what doesn’t work, and then look for creative “workarounds” to solve problems.

Many people network to help their own careers. Instead of targeting people like themselves, however, innovators network to learn new information and draw lessons from other fields. They make a point of meeting people whose lives and training give them different perspectives.

Innovators look at different disciplines that have solved similar problems and “borrow” from their solutions. Many innovators seek forums or events that promote interdisciplinary discussion and creativity. They engage outside experts. They actively seek places where people with diverse ideas gather.

Innovators use the entire world as their laboratory. They repeatedly test, develop, and re-work ideas. Innovators see a possibility or ask questions about why some process or device functions as it does, and then they experiment to test it.

Rather than using experiments designed to reach a specific goal or outcome, they use open-ended testing and pursue its outcomes to see what else they can learn.

Experimentation is closely linked to the other discovery skills of innovation. By asking more and better questions, paying close attention, and consulting people from different fields, fewer experiments are needed to develop an idea.

Successful leaders and entrepreneurs spend a majority of their time engaged in these discovery skills. By understanding the principles of associative thinking, we, as leaders in our departments and health systems, can nurture these behaviors and thereby lead innovation and growth.

1 Dyer, J.H., Gregersen, H.B., & Christensen, C.M. (2009). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review, 87(12), 60-67.