If you can sing (and you can), can you innovate?

July 10, 2012

Many people firmly believe they “can’t carry a tune” even though studies demonstrate that fewer than 1 percent of the population is literally tone deaf.  For most the ability to become at least competent is a function of practice and confidence.

Lena Groeger writes in Scientific American that:

A study published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology reinforces scientists’ growing belief that the culprit is not the ear but the throat. In a series of pitch-matching experiments, nonmusicians were pretty good at adjusting an instrument to match a specific note, suggesting that they could hear it just fine. They had much more trouble, however, imitating the same note with their own voice. The authors suspect that poor motor control of vocal muscles is partly to blame—findings that reinforce the idea that almost anyone can learn to sing.

Could the same be true of the ability to innovate?

In a recent article at the HBR blog network, Scott Anthony asks why, with virtually every corporate leader extolling the virtues of innovation, so many companies have so much trouble with it?  In his analysis, the author cites academic research on innovation that parallels the pitch-matching experiment mentioned above.  From Anthony’s The Four Worst Innovation Assassins:

The reflexive response is that it is a human capital problem — that is, that most people just don’t have what it takes to successfully innovate. I reject that view. Academic research in fact shows that almost anyone can become a competent innovator (with sufficient practice). I’ve seen countless examples of ordinary individuals displaying the creativity, ingenuity, and perseverance of the world’s great innovators.

Those people can only be effective in the right context, but, ironically, many of the things leaders do to encourage innovation actually kill it.

Notwithstanding the memorable (if a tad cheeky) categories of “unintentional innovation assassins” (Cowboy, Googlephile, Astronaut, and Pirate), Mr. Anthony draws excellent counter-habits from each of them.

For example, the Pirate’s “plan” for innovation is to “find the money when we need it” – which may sound entrepreneurial but makes it all but impossible to know how to get resources approved.  The best companies “(M)anage innovation in a disciplined manner. They have dedicated budgets for it, with clear rules for how to obtain funding.”

The piece has several good recommendations for how to approach the task of innovation in a structured environment.

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