Six Techniques to Sharpen and Expand Your Innovation Instincts

by Bradley Woody Bendle

Six Techniques to Sharpen and Expand Your Innovation InstinctsOne of the most valuable things anyone can bring to the innovation process is great ideas for uniquely solving consumer needs. And, in order to bring novel (innovative) ideas to your organization, I have found that it is important to continually sharpen and expand your instincts and intuition.

Sharpen your Instincts

Malcom Gladwell in two of his books, Blink and Outliers, illustrates the value of sharpening one’s instincts and creating more intuitiveness. In Blink, Gladwell provides several deliciously compelling examples of the human “Adaptive Unconscious” at work. This Adaptive Unconsciousness is discussed as one’s ability to intuitively connect a myriad of seemingly disparate dots in a split second in order to form an accurate expert opinion. And, fortunately this Adaptive Unconsciousness is something that one can develop over time.

In Outliers, Gladwell makes the case for developing “expert” knowledge and abilities through what he calls “The 10,000 Hour Rule.” Gladwell’s thesis is that after 10,000 hours immersed in a particular field or activity, one begins to have a seemingly innate level of knowledge or capability. Put another way, with 10,000 hours of effort you can take your Adaptive Unconsciousness (instincts and intuition) to a new, almost uncanny level. But at this point, one’s expertise is potentially narrow, and one way to bring even more value to your innovation process is to expand your instinctive base.

Expand your Instincts

IDEO’s Tom Kelley in The Ten Faces of Innovation espouses the value of a “T-Shaped” individual. The “T-Shaped” person is one who has an amazing breadth of knowledge across many fields, but also an incredible depth of expertise in at least one subject. And the value they contribute to the innovation process is their ability to bring new, novel and highly relevant ideas from the outside. I love how Kelley notes that “you are likely to be surprised by what you find out next” about these types of individuals – these types of people sound pretty interesting don’t they? And, I have to believe that many of the people who end up on Tom Peters’ Cool Friends List are “T-Shaped.”

“T-Shaped” people are the ones society labels insightful and wise. Not only do they have a highly sophisticated capacity to filter, process, and assemble a wide array of information in extraordinarily unique and relevant ways, they also seem to have an insatiable thirst for knowledge. These people would be characterized as being naturally curious; and the value “T-Shaped” individuals bring to the innovation process is that they frankly have the ability to see things others don’t see in all the things that everyone can see. They have and incredible, broadly-fed imagination and even Albert Einstein felt that imagination was often more important than knowledge.

Admittedly (and perhaps even thankfully), not everyone has a desire to be a “T-Shaped” innovator, but this is absolutely a trait that can be developed with effort and over time.


Andy Stefanovich in Look @ More discusses a number of things one can do to continually sharpen their instincts – both broadly and deeply. LAMSTAIH (Look At More Stuff Think About It Harder) is Stefanovich’s mantra for becoming a well-rounded, T-Shaped innovator. To me, “Think About It Harder” is similar to Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule. In order to develop subject matter (or skill-level) expertise, you have to put in the time. You’ve got to work at it- harder. And, you’ve got to think about it – harder.

To broaden your perspective or expand your innovator’s peripheral field of vision you need to reawaken and continually feed your curiosity. Simply put, you need to Look At More Stuff. All living things are born with curiosity, but all too often this is squelched in many humans beginning around the 3rd or 4th grade.

Six Techniques to Sharpen and Expand Your Innovation Instincts

So if the notion of being T-Shaped appeals to you, here are some ideas to help you reactivate some of your instinctual curiosity:

Occasionally take yourself out of your daily, weekly and monthly routines. You’ll be amazed by what doing something different or doing something differently can do for your mind.

Purposefully seek out the new and the different – and pay attention. There is a whole lot of life going on out there and to borrow a quote from Ferris Bueller – “If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Go Wander and Wonder. Go see, do, and experience something completely out of your wheel-house. Get out of your comfort zone and whet your appetite for confusion. Seek out things that are amazing to you.

Challenge your senses. Take a moment every now and then to mentally catalogue what your senses are experiencing and then, maybe even push them a little further.

Make note of things that inspire. Each of us are moved in different ways. Pay attention when you are inspired. Ask yourself why you were inspired. Make note of what this feeling is inspiring in you.

Play! Have you ever spent any time watching two young animals playing around or rough-housing? They are developing their instincts and this is one technique that we human simply don’t do often enough.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas to help you begin to expand and sharpen your innovation instincts. In my mind, I’ve hardly even scratched the surface; but my hope is that you’ve been inspired just a little and that you will continue to add to this list on your own.

If you already have some ideas or techniques of your own, I’d love to hear about them!

Stay curious my friends…

Now, let’s get innovating!

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Learning Culture and InnovationBradley (Woody) Bendle is Director, Insights & Innovation at Collective Brands, Inc. and formerly a VP of Marketing, Customer Analytics & Strategic Systems at Blockbuster, and a consulting economist. His focus areas are: Brand & Market Strategy, Product & Service Innovation, Consumer Behavior, Quantitative & Qualitative Research Methods, and Applied Econometrics. (twitter – @wbendle)


  1. Simplistic, populist, McDonalds Happy Meal approach to innovation that continues to clog the arteries of innovation understanding. A reMchashing of innovation mantras that sadly neglects the complexities of innovation and ignores its dark side. Processed nuggets of knowledge sell books with the nutritional value of a burger box! The internet is awesome but sadly, like the environment, we pollute it with pointless waste like this. Finally the main reason this morsel of innovation inexcellence annoys me is because it promotes a form of irreverence for a subject crucial to organisational development. Simple is good but innovationzero is bad for your health!

  2. great article. I agree with your statements. they are a little bit obvious, but smart and clever!. And they are a great starting point!
    But you missed the real essence of innovation and creativity, in my opinion.

    in USA people want to simplify, with “ten rules”, “six techniques”, “eight keywords”… Reality is more complex, is perfectly incomprehensible as Leonardo’s La Gioconda is. La Gioconda is neither a man, nor a woman, neither sad nor happy, neither rich nor poor. Innovation comes from creativity and brings cash. an innovator must be a poet and a businessman, a visionary and a money maker, he needs to understand the reality as it is and wants to build a better one. You cannot understand the rules, the techniques, the keywords to manage innovation in a comprehensive manner. doing that you are like a painter who think that he is creating the sunraise only because he is painting It. you fall in love for your rules, techniques, keywords, and you risk to lose the best: watch the sunrise, learn to love him, respect him, and you will become a real creator, because you love it. God did everything because he loved everything, not because he knew the right rules or techniques 🙂

  3. Brad,

    One of the ways I “Go Wander and Wonder” is through the social media channels – there are a lot of items in Twitter streams and Linked In groups that are not very relevant to what I do as a finance guy, but they do arouse the curiosity to check it out a little bit more. If it’s interesting, sometimes I will go further in my investigation – finding books in the library, mining relevant organizational websites, etc. This technique is certainly one that almost anyone can employ relatively easily at this point in our history.

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