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Five Principles for Building an Innovator’s Mindset

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

In pop culture, the depiction of innovation as a "light-bulb" moment is a widespread cliche. It implies that ideas descend upon us, as if we are struck by lightning.

While it may be true that meaningful insights come at unexpected moments, this metaphorical image takes attention away from the importance of disciplined preparation for imagining and building innovative solutions. This is as true about technological discoveries as it is true for creative work. As Louis Pasteur famously noted, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

As many chagrined executives realize on the Monday after their six-figure consultants leave the building, sleek flowcharts and fancy process frameworks aren’t enough. To reap the rewards of powerful methodologies such as Design Thinking, it is important to recognize the cultural mindset that underpins successful innovation teams.

Innovation, by definition, requires a departure from the status quo. As such, coming up with non-trivial insights with consistency arises from a well cultivated innovator’s mindset. It is precisely this mindset that becomes the field of potentiality that eventually gives rise to those singular “Aha” moments that titillate the popular imagination.

Our partners at The Berkeley Innovation Group emphasize the centrality of mindset in practicing human-centered design and facilitating cultural change inside organizations. Here are five fundamental Design Thinking principles from their playbook.

Learn by Doing

You can’t learn to drive stick shift by reading the driver’s manual. This truism highlights the distinction between declarative knowledge (knowing that something is the case) and procedural knowledge (knowing how to do something). While formal education systems tend to focus on learning facts and figures, human-centered design implies a set of skills that require practice. Activities like secondary research, ethnographic observation, and prototyping require a certain level of proficiency which, like any habit or skill, is acquired through hours of practice.

Another dimension of the Learn by Doing principle is that innovation requires that we “get out of the building” and talk to the individuals we intend to serve. We start with the assumption that we don’t know much about their lives and their needs. So, Learn by Doing implies that we have the discipline to do the interviews and observations, keeping our minds open to the insights that the people we interact with will reveal.

Curiosity Is Better than Judgment

If upon hearing ideas, your first instinct is to decide whether they are good or bad - to judge them - you will soon have no ideas, because you can always find something wrong with every idea. Instead, approach things with curiosity and encourage others to share their experiences with phrases like, "Let me understand more” and “Wow, that is really interesting! What else are you thinking about?"

The principle of Curiosity Is Better than Judgment is also critical for organizational success. The curious organization is a place where ideas hatch, grow, and flourish. In the judgmental organization on the other hand, ideas hide: in gossip, at the water cooler, and in the parking lot. The spirit of innovation shrivels and dies when all that matters to the organization are bulletproof answers. Chances are, the bulletproof answers are no longer performing as well as they were a year or five years ago when they were first implemented. So in a very real sense, curiosity, the ability to look at things freshly and without judgement is the lifeblood of an innovation organization.

Find Good Ideas and Make Them Better

Another principle that we use every day is the idea that we Find Good Ideas and then we Make Them Better. This principle dovetails nicely with the previous one. Often when a good idea comes along, all we do is come up with the reasons why it will not work or the obstacles that stand in the way of implementation. The idea is given up on. Let's face it: every idea has obstacles to its success and its implementation. But the mindset of finding interesting ideas and then improving upon them allows us to avoid the pitfalls of premature judgement about the idea’s potential.

Simplicity Lies on the Far Side of Complexity

In the process of finding good solutions, we have to weave our way through all kinds of data, patterns, interviews, etc. The human experience of sifting through all this complex information is often a sense of overwhelming. The path to finding solutions, however, is not to give up or settle for a sub-optimal answer. The path is to process all the information, looking for new patterns and new ways of thinking, and from all of that, to emerge with a fresh insight or solution. When we are able to persevere in the face of all the ambiguities and challenges inherent in the process, we find ourselves in that clear space on the other side of the forest in which we find powerful, simple solutions. The key insight to remember is that without going through all the complexity, we cannot find that simplicity.

Trust the Process. Do the Work.

The Berkeley Innovation Group highlights this principle because the Design Thinking process is often very ambiguous and, let's face it, really hard. We break this principle into two equally important parts.

First, we have to Trust the Process. When we get lost in the thick of the forest, this is often our best recourse. Our reliance on a strong process becomes our guiding light, the trail of breadcrumbs that we follow when we are in the midst of complicated data sets that overwhelm us with their volume or complexity, and ultimately leads us to our destination.

However, trusting the process is not enough. We also have to Do the Work. To move forward, there is no other way but to take another step, to act upon the challenges that show up on our path.

Trusting the Process and Doing the Work move in lockstep. Doing work without a process takes us on a road that leads to nowhere. Conversely, if you only have a process but do not do the work, you are going to get even less. So these bookends of process and work are the type of iterative, consistent practice that we need in order to hone our skills as true innovators.


Knowdeon partners with The Berkeley Innovation Group to bring the powerful innovation practices of Design Thinking to individuals and organizations around the globe. To find out more, visit the page for our upcoming Design Thinking online course.


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