Creative Thinking

The Psychology of Innovation Reveals We Can All Be Inspired Geniuses With a Little Practice

By Nicola Brown on February 22, 2018

Innovation is one of the biggest buzzwords in marketing hives across the country. We all know innovation is important, and we're not shy about attaching the word to everything from job descriptions to corporate branding, but we don't seem to spend much time talking about what it is exactly and how we actually do it. Recent investigations into the psychology of innovation offer some valuable clues for marketers to take real steps towards cultivating and integrating each of our individual capacities for innovation in actionable ways.

What Is Innovation?

Steve Jobs once said: "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

It doesn't just delineate those at the top from those at the bottom; the popular adage "innovate or die" suggests it's the very lifeblood of a company, the only alternative to shutting up shop when things get rocky.

Innovation is important. But what does innovation actually mean in the context of your daily life?

A quick online search reveals that most definitions point towards associations with novelty (a new idea, device, method, product) and utility (better products, more efficient processes, more effective solutions). One particularly apt description calls innovation the "practical implementation of an invention." But one thing I often forget or overlook when I'm trying to channel this elusive force-as I'm sure many creative professionals do-is that innovation doesn't always require novelty. It can also involve looking at old things differently or applying existing resources in different ways or contexts. In some cases, the answer may already be out there; it's just a question of connecting the right dots.

Innovation in photography

Image attribution: Denise Johnson

How Can We Be More Innovative?

Many companies ask this question at the institutional level. What bold, broad, and unexpected changes can we bring about to make our company more innovative? Perhaps we'll branch out from vacuum cleaners and start making pencils or tear down all the walls for an open-concept office.

But a group of researchers from the University of South Florida decided to narrow it down to the individual level to find out how you-nobody else, just you-can be more innovative. They looked at what innovation means on the level of traits and skills within individuals, and they are currently building an experimental educational program that will teach people how to innovate from a very personal perspective.

One of the most important things to take away from this new study is that innovation and innovativeness-rather than being a single, fixed trait-encompasses a set of skills that can be cultivated. The authors explain that "we do not need to try to create innovative characteristics; rather, we simply need to show individuals how to cultivate innovative thought." They believe that education can help us all maximize certain skills and abilities we already possess that lead to innovative thinking.

So what are those skills and abilities? Abstract thinking, problem-solving, motivation, creativity, curiosity, taking risks with no fear of failure, positive attitude, persistence and passion, dissatisfaction with the status quo, open-mindedness, and vision.

Woman with glasses

Image attribution: Charles Etoroma

These mindsets can be practiced in the workplace in many ways. Try holding a monthly motivational town hall that gets people to think about why they're there and what they're most passionate about, and link those feelings to the vision of the company. Hold classes or workshops that tap into positive moods and openness (yoga and meditation are great for both of these). Try doing a few hands-on lunch and learns where people feel empowered to take risks within the safety of a simulated environment. You could even incorporate interviews with employees in an internal newsletter sharing thoughts on where their inspiration comes from and how they've overcome challenges in their career. If you look at all these elements as part of the bigger picture of cultivating innovation within your organization, you'll tap into the bottom-up potential of individuals driving innovation naturally.

Collaborative Innovation

Despite their personal focus, the authors emphasize that it takes a team to create innovation, as different minds and different skill sets can help propel each other forward. It's all about collaboration. So be wary of a top-down approach that imposes too much structure on the environment. If you're keen to create a space where new ideas are likely to take shape, ask everyone who will be involved for their input on how it should be done. Ask specific questions: When and where do they get their most creative work done? Can they describe a moment where they felt really motivated, passionate, or "in the zone"? Get a sense of these individual preferences to inform the cultivation a more innovative environment.

Because the question of how to innovate involves such personal factors, it may look completely different in different organizations. While reading about the success stories of others, don't forget to take your own path.

For more insights into the psychology of innovation, subscribe to the Content Standard newsletter.

Subscribe to the Content Standard

Featured image attribution: James Pond


Nicola Brown

Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at