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Yes, You Can Teach an Old Company New Tricks, Innovation Psychologist Says

By Adrienne Burke | Small Business

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There’s a science to being creative, and, having worked with such innovative giants as Google, Disney, LEGO, and Virgin, Amantha Imber has it figured out. In her new book, The Innovation Formula, the best-selling innovation psychologist and founder of the Australian innovation consultancy Inventium, offers “14 science-based keys for creating a culture where innovation thrives.” We had the opportunity to ask the creativity genius a few questions.

Aabaco Small Business Advisor: Please explain a little about your work as an innovation psychologist.

Amantha Imber: As an innovation psychologist, I specialize in dissecting the latest research in fields such as cognitive science, organizational psychology, and neuroscience into what has been scientifically proven to increase innovation within organizations. My firm also conducts our own research into the key drivers of Australia’s most innovative companies.

ASB: You are also a singer. Your combination of right and left brain expertise seems to make you uniquely suited to writing about the science of creativity. Do you find that creative people resist the idea that there could be a formula for nurturing creative output?

Amantha Imber: Absolutely. I find that “creative” people are the most resistant to being told that creativity is a skill that can be taught. I think this makes some creative people feel less special. Indeed, our ability to think creatively is actually only 30% genetically pre-determined. The rest is up to us. By using tools that have been scientifically proven to increase our ability to come up with great ideas and exposing ourselves to stimulus that increases creativity, every one of us can significantly increase our creative thinking abilities.

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ASB: You talk in your book about the strong innovation culture at GE and the weak one at Yahoo. The differences are well known by now to many people, but they seem opposite of what we should expect – that a relatively young dotcom business would be far more innovative than an ancient manufacturing company. Is there a simple way to explain the reason for the differences in level of innovation between those two particular companies?

Amantha Imber: In my book, I talk about an initiative that Jeff Immelt started at GE called Imagination Breakthroughs (IBs). In 2003, Immelt introduced IBs to his senior leadership team, which he defined as an innovation that would contribute $100 million of incremental growth. Each member of the team was responsible for generating three IB’s every year. The challenge is big, but the resources made available to leaders make it a challenge that they can meet. And what we know from research is that setting people big challenges - but ones that they have the skills and resources to achieve - is one of the most important drivers of innovation culture.

Unlike GE, which continues to produce breakthrough innovations in the many industry sectors they play in, Yahoo has struggled to disrupt its competitors and, from an outsider’s point of view, appears to play it safe. Incremental innovation rather than more breakthrough innovation has become the focus, and as such, the risk adversity inherent in this focus has a negative impact on innovation.

ASB: Do you think small businesses have a better shot at being truly innovative than large corporations do? Why?

Amantha Imber: Small business have several big advantages over big businesses - they can move quickly, they don’t have bureaucracy slowing them down, they can make fast decisions, and they tend to be a lot less risk adverse. These are all significant benefits in the innovation race, but also ones that small businesses can take for granted.

ASB: Can you describe work you might have done helping transform a particular small business into an innovative culture?

Amantha Imber:  A lot of the work we have done with smaller businesses involves helping them build innovation capability. We have taught many businesses how to identify customer-driven innovation opportunities and given them tools they can use again and again to keep uncovering new opportunities for their business.

We have taught many small businesses tools that have been scientifically proven to enhance their creative thinking efforts - to give them a competitive advantage in the kinds of thinking and ideas they produce.

And finally, we have worked with many businesses in teaching them how to experiment with an idea and test it properly with customers before investing a lot of money into implementing it. Essentially, having the skills to experiment with ideas prior to implementation is a great way to de-risk innovation.  

Follow Adrienne Jane Burke at @adajane
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