How to Develop Innovation Skills


By Janice Francisco, CEO, Principal Innovation Consultant, Facilitator and Coach, BridgePoint Effect, Advisor to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council on Commercialization and Innovation, and Strategic Risk Council

Recently I was invited to Ottawa, Canada to help Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada review and improve a series of Innovation Skills profiles. These profiles were developed through research conducted with industry, academia and government by the Conference Board of Canada.

The question of how to develop innovation skills was top-of-mind for close to forty participants from across Canada. We shared one thing in common: we are all passionate about improving innovation outcomes in our country. In another blog, I wrote about the challenges Canada is facing in its innovation performance.

The reality is this: for Canada to increase its innovation performance, our businesses need to improve theirs. It’s people who innovate, and so, one of the best ways to increase a business’ innovation performance is to lift the innovation skills within the organization.

For those of you reading from abroad, when the Conference Board took on this research, they were breaking new ground – it turns out little to no work had been done to articulate innovation skills in a business context before. The Conference Board’s work represents an innovation itself in understanding the unique contribution that an individual’s skills, attitudes and behaviours make to an organization’s innovation performance.

What are innovation skills?

Innovation skills are the critical skills leaders and their employees need to contribute to an organization’s innovation performance – skills needed to produce new and improved strategies, capabilities, processes and services.

Now, as a result of this research, you can take a simple assessment, General Innovation Skills Aptitude Test, and find out how you rate in the following key innovation skills areas:

Adapted from The Conference Board of Canada: Innovation Skills Profile 2.0

How to develop innovation skills

Developing innovation skills starts with learning the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process. CPS is a proven method for approaching a problem or challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. By its very nature, the CPS process produces ideas and options that are “creative,” meaning they are novel and useful. Its application brings clarity, ideas and action to the challenges you face.

CPS was inspired by a business need to help people think more creatively and productively and was developed through academic research. Its development is credited to the early work of Alex Osborn in the 1940s and the research partnership he formed with Dr. Sydney Parnes in the 1950s. Now, with over sixty years of research behind it, CPS is proven to enhance creative thinking and behaviour in individuals who learn how to apply it to real work situations.

At essence, CPS provides a framework to help people clarify and understand a challenge, generate ideas to resolve it, and then develop the ideas into workable solutions that can be implemented. The critical and creative thinking tools and techniques that are part of the process help people organize their thinking, collaborate more effectively with others, and manage complexity and risks. Built into the CPS process are opportunities to monitor an individual’s or a team’s progression, assess the kinds of thinking required, and review the results that are being achieved.

To drive novelty and usefulness throughout the CPS process, participants deliberately alternate between two very distinct thinking modes: divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking is about making lists – it’s a broad search for many diverse and novel alternatives. Convergent thinking is about making decisions. It follows divergent thinking and provides a mechanism to sift through, screen, select, prioritize, organize and refine the more promising alternatives.

CPS takes the guesswork out of tackling a problem because it guides you through the thinking you need to do, supported by rules (yes, rules) and roles. CPS is flexible and explicit at the same time and can be used to tackle any variety of problems and situations in any area of your life – at home, at work, or at school – and in any domain. Individuals or groups can use it to promote creative behaviours, enhance individual creativity, and help groups work better together. It works just as well in situations that you are facing alone or that impact multiple stakeholders, where their engagement and collaboration will produce a better outcome.

CPS helps you to manage complexity, deal with uncertainty and respond to change. It lends itself well to situations where you’re in new, unexplored territory, finding yourself concerned about options, feeling stumped or stuck, and wondering, “How am I going to deal with this?” These kinds of problems are often referred to as “wicked problems,” ones that have:

  • No single solution to drive for

  • Situations that are new or changing and ambiguous in nature

  • Uncertain outcomes

  • Many contributing factors

  • Information that is missing or difficult to understand for relevancy

The benefits of CPS for developing innovation skills

We’ve had the privilege of helping organizations around the globe build innovation skills and innovation cultures by learning how to apply CPS to real-world innovation challenges – VUCA challenges – and organizational change initiatives.

Below are some examples of how CPS helps to build innovation skills.

Creativity, Problem Solving and Continuous Improvement Skills – A key presupposition of CPS is that everyone is creative; creativity is teachable and it improves with practice – and that’s backed up by research. Which means anyone can use it to improve outcome-driven innovation and problem-solving results. CPS helps people understand that creativity is about the attitudes you have, the beliefs you hold and the ways you think. CPS asks us to focus on what’s possible; believing that a solution to our problem is achievable regardless of the complexity or uncertainty we’re navigating. Typically when we engage in problem-solving, the presenting problem is not likely to be the real problem that needs attention. CPS teaches us to explore challenges from many angles, providing tools and process that allow us to reframe our thinking, and phrase challenges as questions. It teaches the necessity of challenging assumptions and respectful means to question the status quo. The need to alternate our thinking between divergent and convergent processes drives creativity and helps us keep open to novelty and make surprising connections.

Guidelines for divergent and convergent thinking make it safe for people to confidently put forth their ideas, and build and evaluate solutions in a disciplined way. Here, learning to praise ideas first, looking for what’s good and finding ways to build and improve on others’ ideas supports both continuous improvement and radical innovation efforts.

Build Risk-taking and Risk Assessment Skills – Learning how to apply CPS to innovation challenges helps you manage the risks inherent to innovation. Using criteria for decision-making, you can assess and take intelligent, well-informed risks. Criteria are used to articulate the limits and boundaries of your appetite for risk and as a means to create alignment to values, ethics, and strategic priorities in the organization. Making a decision to take a risk that sits outside these boundaries is foolhardy; challenging your assumptions about risks helps you open to new possibilities within acceptable limits and boundaries and remove false risks, thereby creating a mechanism to advance your thinking and find better risks to take. A number of solution development tools help you strengthen a solution through a positive, outcome-driven critical and gap analysis, using evaluation matrixes, risk assessment and prioritization tools. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of CPS is that you learn to trust decision-making when it comes to taking risks because you know the rigour that’s gone into the creative problem-solving process you’ve engaged in; you've explored many options and used criteria wisely.

Power up your Relationship-building and Communication Skills – Using CPS on innovation projects gives you the power needed to build and transform relationships and communications in across functional groups internal to your organization or on your team and external stakeholders. It provides a mechanism for productive, respectful engagement and supports people in developing relationship-building and communication skills by providing a shared language for innovation, mutual respect for the diversity of ways people engage in problem-solving, and a simple, repeatable and explicit process that helps people understand what kind of thinking they need to bring to the table and when, and tools to help them go about it efficiently and effectively.

Engaging stakeholders, team members and decision-makers in the innovation process becomes easier and far more effective with CPS because of the way it moves between divergent and convergent thinking at every process step and because of the way it uses roles in the process. As you approach a challenge using CPS, you identify who the problem owner is, who can be used as resource group members to help tackle the problem and who will act as the process facilitator guiding everyone through the process steps. Basically, you engage stakeholders and resource group members in the divergent phase of each process step, thereby ensuring a diversity of thinking comes to the table. You engage select resource group members and the problem owner in the convergent thinking process to drive decision-making on how to leverage and advance the thinking provided in the divergent thinking process and to assess what are the next logical steps to take in the process.

In fact, many of our clients have significantly improved relationships and communications across their organization because we’ve developed an Engagement Framework for them that integrates CPS and its divergent and convergent thinking principles.

Enhance Implementation Skills – With CPS, implementation skills are developed through the use of implementation tools that help you identify assisters and resisters to your planned implementation, build realistic action plans, evaluate stakeholder needs for support, and assess key learnings and performance metrics along the way so you can test fast and correct fast as needed.

How you can learn Creative Problem Solving to develop innovation skills

BridgePoint Effect teaches creative problem solving using the FourSight Thinking System™. An assessment helps you understand what kind of creative thinker you are, and collaborative tools help you navigate the CPS process with your team. Third-party research (2013, 2015) shows impact 6 – 18 months after training. Research conducted by IBM (2007) shows that teams who have FourSight thinking preference awareness and process awareness outperform teams who don’t.

Our clients experience similar results and tell us they like FourSight because of the ease with which it can be accepted, adopted and implemented as a process for innovation – it makes innovation structural and language-based; because the assessment helps people understand how they are creative and how they can bring their best thinking to work, and finally, because it plays well with other models – you can use it with any business practice, with any other innovation protocols you may have already implemented, and to enhance organizational change and transformation efforts.

Here are two ways BridgePoint Effect can help:

  • Or let us help you build a culture of innovation, solidifying your team’s practice of creative problem solving as you tackle real work challenges, through a customized learning engagement using our ThinkUP Innovation Framework.

About BridgePoint Effect

Doing business in dynamic circumstances brings unique, never-before-seen challenges to teams. We have a framework that helps leaders and their teams know what to do when they don't know what to do. 

BridgePoint Effect helps teams discover and deliver innovative solutions so they can achieve their goals. 

Count on us for innovation and strategy consulting that helps teams win. 



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