Leadership: How to Get Inspired for Innovation

By Mike Hugos
Sun, October 15, 2006

CIO — As leaders, we are charged with marshaling the innovative energy in our organizations. And we work hard at it. It’s too bad innovation doesn’t happen from hard work alone; if it did, we’d have all we need.

But innovation calls for more than diligence. At the center of every innovation there is the proverbial "Aha" moment, that moment of inspiration when you see something about a particular problem that you haven’t seen before. I have learned about this moment of inspiration from watching my wife, who is a dancer and choreographer, go through the process of looking for inspiration. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere; sometimes from a piece of music; and sometimes, to my surprise, from something I say or do.

Getting inspiration, then crafting it into a stage production, is what a performing artist does. Getting inspiration and crafting it into an IT system is what a CIO does. Perhaps no one would call us artists, but in order to foster innovation, we CIOs need to learn from artists.

How Artists Work

When seeking innovation we typically ask, How do we get ideas? But that’s the wrong question. I don’t think we get ideas; I think the ideas get us. Artists routinely say their best ideas seem to come from outside of themselves; what they do is give form to those ideas through whatever medium they are working in, be it painting, sculpture, dance, music, film or literature.

The better question to ask is, How do we put ourselves in a frame of mind where we can receive inspiration when it comes to us? Artists have been wrestling with this question for millennia. Here are some things I see artists do when they work:

  • They immerse themselves in their subjects. Actors immerse themselves in the personalities and histories of their characters, painters do sketch after sketch of an image, and musicians experiment with many different sequences of notes and tempos.
  • They collaborate. Many forms of art require effective collaboration between groups of people with complementary skills. My wife works closely with the dancers in her company, lighting designers, costume designers and musicians. She combines their different ideas to give form to her dance.
  • They play with different ideas. They don’t dismiss an idea just because it seems strange at first. My wife and her collaborators try out different combinations of movement, light, costumes and music to see what happens.
Inspiration occurs when a certain combination of ideas suddenly reveals a simple underlying pattern that ties the work together and expresses what the artistic work is about. Artists say they know the inspiration is authentic if they have an intellectual, emotional and physical response to it. Once that happens, there’s a flurry of activity as people flesh out their inspiration and give it shape. During this period, artists work long hours; they become single-minded about bringing their ideas into tangible form and presenting them to the world.

And once a big project is finished or a b

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