Innovate May 2015

Critically Thinking Innovation

Written By: David Whitney

Invest in critical thinking. It pays good dividends.
– Author Unknown

Successful innovators think critically and act strategically. Although the ability to solve problems can rely heavily on an innovator’s creativity, a deeper look at the innovation process shows that creativity is one of many variables found in the equation of successful innovation. The innovation process consists of a series of steps — some before and others after creative thinking occurs; so, where — and how — does critical thinking fit into the process of critically thinking innovation?

A good place to start is the innovation process itself. The innovation process I am most familiar with consists of five steps:

1. Accurately identify the problem to be solved;
2. Freely and openly brainstorm any and all possible solutions to the problem;
3. Select three to four possible solutions and perform sufficient research on each of them so as to determine a clear-and-away best solution to test first;
4. Test the top choice using an implementation plan that produces “good enough” prototypes (aka version 1.0) while forgoing the need (at this time) for comprehensive solutions;
5. Launch the version 1.0 prototype, measure its performance via feedback from prospective customers and/or users, make incremental changes that reflect the feedback received, and launch a version 2.0 of the prototype that incorporates incremental improvements and enhanced functionality.

In this process, of the five steps involved, only one (No. 2) is characterized as creative. The other four steps, however, require significant amounts of critical thinking elements and process driven decision-making inputs. Innovators should apply critical thinking principles in order to accurately identify the problem being solved; failure to do so builds a faulty foundation upon which the remaining innovation process steps sit precariously. Plus, by clearly and accurately identifying problems to be solved, innovators find it is easier to brainstorm ideas as part of the vetting process found in steps three through five.

The reason why innovation benefits from critical thinking is simple; critical thinking is used when judgment is needed to produce a desired set of valued outcomes. That is why the majority of innovation outcomes reflect incremental improvements built on a foundation of critically thought-out solutions.

Successful innovators know how to think critically. The best ones do so by finding a balance between visualizing moon shots (Elon Musk) and pursuing big hairy audacious goals (Steve Jobs); meanwhile, the pragmatist prefers to place his or her feet firmly on the ground in pursuit of day-to-day incremental improvements. Whereas the Musks and Jobses of the world peer into the future and see where the marketplace is headed (or should be headed, according to their sentiments), the rest of us look at our to-do lists and hunker down at doing the small things today that enable us to stay in the game tomorrow.

The speed in which business operates today is exponentially faster and more complex than it was 20 or 30 years ago. For innovators to be successful in today’s global economy, they absolutely must step out of their comfort zones, and, equally important, they must incorporate critical thinking methodologies into the problem-solving innovations they create and implement.

That is why in today’s hyper-fast and uber-competitive world, innovators need to apply critical thinking methods more than ever before.

To thrive in market sectors where constant change is the norm, critically thinking innovators are charged with the task of catching lightning in a bottle. To do so successfully depends upon the innovator’s ability to rank possible outcomes, discern patterns, connect the dots that others don’t see, and examine data in new and different ways. Some innovators are born with critical thinking abilities, whereas most of us do not possess this skill. That is why the following suggestions can be used for developing new — and strengthening existing — critical thinking skills:

• When confronted with problemladen scenarios, don’t pursue a quick fix. Instead, assess the problem looking at it from a different angle; take the time and effort to analyze all possible solutions, being sure to consider both the shortand long-term consequences of proposed problem-solving solutions. (Reminder: All choices — critically thought-out or not — have consequences.)
• Engage in “what” and “if” thinking. That is, “What are our competitors’ reactions if we introduce this solution in the market?” “What will our customers think if we offer this alternative?” “What are the short- and long-term impacts if our suppliers and distributors abandon us?” “What if situations beyond our control threaten our innovation success?”

Above all, successful innovation is not about formulating problem solving ideas. The key to achieving success is to create processes — e.g., critical thinking — that support a focused and disciplined approach to transforming problem-solving ideas into market-supported products and services. The most successful companies possess a culture of innovation and deliver innovative products and services using a framework that emphasizes focused execution over cool ideas. Plus, it is equally important to recruit, manage and develop employees who are capable of engaging in the process of critically thinking innovation.

In many instances, critically thought-out innovation is the panacea that reverses flat revenues and energizes a stodgy, unappealing product line. Step into any business meeting, attend a college class, or linger in a coffee shop and the word “innovation” permeates conversation — and for good reason. From the workshop to the boardroom, innovation offers companies the hope of keeping pace and (hopefully) getting ahead in a rapidly changing, hyper-competitive global economy. My recommendation is that you either already have injected or plan to insert critical thinking methods into your organization’s innovation processes.

In conclusion, innovation serves as a bridge that links problems in need of solving to those who are willing to pay for innovative solutions. The bridge to successful innovation is crossed by many innovators. For those of you positioning your companies to produce more successful innovations, I recommend you use innovation processes that emphasize critical thinking, applied creativity and disciplined execution. Designing innovation processes in this manner produces valuable outcomes that strengthen and support your organization’s innovation ecosystem. Doing so directly contributes to the excellence that is achieved by critically thinking innovation.

DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the University of Florida’s College of Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the Entrepreneur in Residence in the University’s College of Engineering and continues to teach a course, Engineering Innovation, to both undergraduate and graduate students in the college. Engineering Innovation features the Spotlight on Innovation series, which Whitney created; Spotlight brings the real-world stories and experiences of innovators and entrepreneurs into the classroom for insightful conversations. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven companies.

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