6 Steps to Amp up Your Associative Thinking Skills

October 16th, 2013

Jeff Dyer, coauthor of the Innovator’s DNA shared with us last week that you have to act differently to think differently.

It’s a simple concept, yet most of us never really act…never develop the practice of truly thinking differently. We’ve either let life fool us into thinking we’re not creative; or deep down we know we could be brilliant, but we don’t take the time to learn the enabling skills and act on them.

For perspective, did you know that the most powerfully innovative executives in the world spend at least 4 months out of the year laser focused on innovation-related activities? Average executives spend about 2 months.

If you’re willing to invest the time, what do you do with it?

One of the key competencies that separates truly innovative leaders from their less innovative peers is associative thinking skills: the ability to connect previously unconnected ideas. Leveraging this skill, they’re able to see their businesses in new ways and imagine disruptive new business models, products and services.

So, what can you start doing today to develop the skill of associative thinking? Here are a few tangible practices:

1) Connect outside your network
For fresh new ideas you must actively search for and network with people different from you. People from different industries, backgrounds, functions, religions, ages, countries – you get the picture. Sit down over coffee, breakfast or lunch and share your challenges. His/ her response may surprise you and will most likely help you reframe things in a new way.

2) Observe new environments with fresh eyes
You can become a great observer if you frequently put yourself in new situations…it’s easy to become desensitized to the same old places. Could be new countries, industry conferences, cities, organizations, a local TEDx event or checking out the TEDx YouTube channel over lunch. There are an infinite number of analogs available to apply back to your business if you take the time to put yourself in places to learn and get inspired.

3) Question the unquestionable
Force yourself to ask and answer questions that impose constraints on you and those around you. Questions like: “What if we couldn’t sell to existing customers next year?” “What if one of our key leaders suddenly left the organization?” “What if there was an ethical crisis in our industry?” “What if we had to deliver the same output for 25% of today’s cost?” Sometimes the questions might seem outlandish and disconnected, but this line of thinking often produces compelling new ideas.

4) Experiment to see differently
Michael Dell took computers apart at age 15 to understand how they worked…the process of experimentation and building and re-building gave him a vision for Dell and his, at the time, disruptive direct to consumer model. This could look like learning a new skill, taking something apart and putting it back together. Look for insights around how things work, fit together, support or interrupt each other.

5) Have the courage to act
Having a great idea isn’t enough. The world is littered with brilliant people who sit on their ideas. Have the courage to move forward on your idea…you may not have all the answers out of the gate, but trust that they will reveal themselves as you move forward.

6) Repeat
Thinking differently isn’t a one-time event, you have to stay after it. And, none of the suggestions above become strengths until you practice them and then do the hard work to find the connections.

Develop the competency for associative thinking, and suddenly the time you invest in innovation will become much more productive.

 

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