Innovation is a habit

Most of us operate habitually day to day. In our organisations, we follow processes, have little rituals and habits about what we think, and what we do. Not all our habits are great, many are good (they help us get where we are) and others are not so good (they stop us from growing and improving).

Our negative habits get in the way when they prevent us from doing something more extraordinary, something more valuable or more innovative. The key part of the brain that controls our habits is the Basal Ganglia, this little piece of brain machinery is responsible for allowing us to do and make so many of thousands of decisions we make every day. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Basal Ganglia, the processing power that our brains would require to process a decision from start to finish every time would be so huge that our heads would be too big to allow us to be born. The Basal Ganglia allows the brain to utilise previous experiences as a way to shortening our processing required in making decisions. In essence, habits make our life easier for our brain and for ourselves.

Innovation is just a series of particular habits, brought together to create some commercial magic at the end of it all. If we can create some awesome innovative habits and maintain them, we can make innovating much easier.

Our challenge is:

  1.  What are the innovation habits that we want to create?

  2.  Are there any habits I need to eliminate or change that are hampering or preventing my innovation as it stands?

  3.  How do I continue my habits for a long time to come?

  4.  What is it that creates a habit in the first place?

In his awesome book the Power of Habits, author Charles Duhigg takes readers on a journey into the world of habits. After an intense investigation of Habit scientists, Duhigg reveals some of the secrets behind habits.

One key takeaway is that a habit is made up of the following:

  • a trigger

  • a routine

  • a reward

  • a craving

Say you start your day at the office by checking your emails as soon as you sit down.

  • The trigger may be seeing the computer.

  • The routine might be to log in and check emails.

  • The reward may be the number of emails that you look at.

  • And the craving that you are trying to satisfy may actually be trying to get a sense of control in your day-to-day life.

Negative habits are often continued because of the craving that it satisfies, not necessarily the reward. As Duhigg shares, one of his habits was to head to the cafeteria and buy a cookie. By applying a habit awareness process, Duhigg started to capture his thoughts and feelings when this habit came on – what was he feeling? And what was he thinking, etc..

Part of chaining habits (if you feel they are not serving you) is in realising that we can change the reward to satisfy the craving, and therefore change the habit.  Duhigg tried substituting the biscuit with some fruit. Was he craving the sweet sugar hit? The fruit didn’t satisfy him, perhaps it was something else? What Duhigg realised was that he was really craving the social interaction of the cafeteria. So, rather than head to the cafeteria where he was likely to buy the cookie, he instead went for a wander up the corridor to see if a colleague’s door was open and have a quick chat. Craving satisfied and a new habit created.

The point to this story about habits is twofold: First go and buy the book it’s a great read and second, we need to be vigilant about bad habits that prevent us from innovating & replace them with new habits.

Here are five (5) quick routines or processes to start to get an innovation habit happening. Try doing one habit once a day, that way you can do 5 of them a week.

  1. Ask yourself if you could reinvent the way you work differently by starting from scratch, what would you do to make your work easier? This could be making something faster, slower, simpler and so on.

  2. Scan a part of the world for something that catches your eye or your imagination – the further afield it is, the better it will be. If you’re in the world of finance, explore the world of romance. If you work in digital, explore the world of handcrafts. If you see an idea, imagine you have to incorporate the key attributes of the idea into your world. What would that look like and how would it work?

  3. Map a part of a process that you do in your day-to-day work. Identify the steps that make up the process. You could think of it as a series of check lists, or a mind map of how all the elements relate to it.

  4. Look at a map of the processes you have mapped before and force yourself to improve some of the steps. Start small and stay specific. How could you improve it?

  5. What’s something that your client or team dislike about what you do in your work? What could you do to make working with your service, process or product the best experience imaginable? Now, how can you make it happen?

So what’s the craving that you’re looking for? Relieving boredom? A sense of excitement of doing something no one has done before? A challenge? A puzzle? A sense of pride? Recognition?

Some of our habits such as playing in the footy-tipping competition, while might be fun, may not be that innovative, but it satisfies the craving of fun, and a sense of competition in a simple game with simple rules. We can do the same by creating a gaming environment around the innovation we create, with clear rules, objectives and a way of measuring ones progress with constant feedback.

Is it the number of ideas created per week? Number of new ideas or initiatives implemented in a quarter? Number of projects completed? The rules are up to you as are the opportunities.

Start your new innovation habit today.



Nils Vesk

Founder of Ideas with Legs | Innovation speaker | consultant | author

nils vesk