#487  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 9          September 2000

Cultivating the Habit of Innovation
by Jim Canterucci

Jim Canterucci, founder of Transition Management Advisors (phone 614.899.9044 or www.corpchange.com), is an executive advisor and professional speaker on the subjects of change leadership and innovation. To subscribe to his free email newsletter, ADVISORY, email jcan@corpchange.com.

To most of us, innovation is a process executed at “special” times when we need to break new ground. Ironically, at those times, we’re usually too rusty to be innovative. Why should we save our best efforts for rare occasions?

For some people innovation is a habit. They are usually the most satisfied, ingenious (regardless of natural intelligence), and high-achieving people. Four distinguishing traits work in tandem to set habitual innovators apart: awareness, curiosity, focus, and initiative.

By developing these traits, you will cultivate the habit of innovation. This will empower you to succeed--by your standards and on your terms.


Robotically reacting and thinking repels innovation. The first trait integral to the habit of innovation is awareness--of yourself and external circumstances.

To become self-aware, start noticing your thoughts--where they are and how they affect your emotions and actions. Think in the present to catch fleeting opportunities, as well as to detect subtle signals of trouble. Don’t get caught up in your thoughts, including opinions about yourself. They may not be “reality.”

Be warned: Self-awareness can be uncomfortable. We learn early to avoid pain by not thinking about what bothers us. Notice your tendency to pull away from where you need to look.

To become more aware:

  Accept different perspectives. Each of us has a context for our views and behavior. The more perspectives you consider, the more choices you will have about how to respond. But find a balance, neither clinging white-knuckled to your own views nor letting others define you and your behavior.

  Use all your senses.

  Look closely at processes, considering how and why things are done. Notice how obstacles are part of the process, not a negative to avoid.

  Peel back the layers, avoiding sweeping statements. Instead of “Oh no--here comes another change in the workplace,” for example, consider what you fear. Forging new relationships? The loss of control? Changes to your routines? Having to be a novice again? Being specific indicates ways you can have power over a situation. This skill will help you communicate with others, too.


Curiosity flows seamlessly from awareness. Once you open yourself to the nuances of life, it’s hard not to find things that fascinate you.

To be curious, you must give yourself the freedom to risk and make mistakes. Interestingly, curiosity requires trust--trust that each person and each situation has something to teach you. Even when there’s no immediate practical application of the things you learn, you’re training creative muscles that innovators keep well toned.

Curiosity jump-starts the habit of innovation by taking you to deeper levels of knowing and helping you to relate to others.

To develop curiosity:

  Routinely seek opinions from people who have no experience with the subject. These can be the most refreshing sources of new information, since they are not entrenched in assumptions and mindsets.

  Seek alternative solutions, even when all is well. This gives you fallback positions.

  Try new things. Even if they don’t work out, you’ll learn lessons to apply elsewhere.

  When you have a problem, work like a detective. Ask questions. Look at everything. Seek out experts for their views. Do your own research.

  Notice and eliminate assumptions. They’re usually wrong, yet we accept them as “fact.”

  Fire your inner judge. Give ideas time to percolate before assessing them.

  “Browse” everywhere--at the library or newsstand, at friends’ homes, even with the yellow pages. Explore new places and types of information. Take different routes.

  Ask questions of people you encounter--find out what they do and what else they do. Find out how their activities fit into the world and how their interest began.


Awareness and curiosity expand your options, but once you move toward a solution, you need to focus--to go beneath the surface and give full attention to what you’re doing.

Regardless of the task, focus pays. In Finding Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that people feel especially uncomfortable when they act by default and without focus.

To improve your focus:

  Fine-tune its intensity. Focus gently and guard against obsession. Allow time for ideas to simmer while you do other things.

  Direct your focus appropriately. Find a balance between physical and cerebral pursuits, easy and challenging activities, and solitude and activities with others. Let go of things that sap your energy. Prioritizing helps you to be sure you’re focusing on the right things.

  Really listen to others with focus. So often, we go through the motions and miss opportunities to learn. What are the person’s eyes telling you? Body language?  Is it consistent with the words you’re hearing?


Awareness awakens us to what’s going on, curiosity lets us gather ideas, and focus lets us nurture particular ideas. But the innovative spirit without action is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. Initiative to act gives purpose and momentum to the habit of innovation.

Imagine a Spring Training invitee who has studied baseball for decades, soaking up information, asking questions and chasing answers, and focusing on how to hit against each pitcher. But once at the plate, he never takes the bat off his shoulders. Not once. Finally, he is cut from the roster.

“But someone incapable of action would never make it to Spring Training,” you might say. Exactly! Capability without initiative does not translate into results.

You no doubt know gifted people who lack initiative. They languish in jobs they hate, have ideas they never pursue, or are perpetual students, never venturing into the world. It’s easy to see that they need initiative, but what about you? You have frequent once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. How many are you seizing?

Why do we avoid taking initiative? In a word, fear. We’re afraid of putting ourselves out there, of failing, of risking, of looking stupid. Eventually, we must decide that our goals matter more than our fears.

To develop initiative:

  Define your goals, whether they’re making a six-figure income, getting a higher position, finding a job in your favorite city, or achieving all your assignments with excellence. Then do what it takes to propel yourself toward those goals.

  Make your environment motivating. Change what saps your energy. Surround yourself with natural light, people who inspire you, quotes or photos.

  Become optimistic, looking for the positive lessons, the good in others and yourself, the win-win solutions. Visualize yourself succeeding.

  Take risks, which bring increased confidence.

  Use awareness to assess the impact of all you do. Measure actions by impact; small actions can have great results.

  Live so that you will have no regrets about paths not taken and actions undone.

Putting It Together: The Habit of Innovation

While each of these traits is worth pursuing, the power comes for those who combine them into the habit of innovation.

Consider the late Charles Schulz. The Peanuts comic strip resonates with a broad audience, thanks largely to his awareness of everything from applied psychology to the way adults sound to children. After his death, Billie Jean King described Schulz’s curiosity--how he called her to ask questions about tennis competition. “He would probe and probe and probe, ask questions all the time.” Extreme focus is apparent in the unforgettable characters and stories he created. And he had the initiative to persevere when an editor decided to stop publishing his comic strip five decades ago--and to continue touching lives long after he could have retired. His daughter said it was no coincidence that he died just as his final strip was being published.

With the habit of innovation, you too will use your unique abilities to make a difference. Awareness and curiosity will illuminate your life, focus will direct your ideas, and initiative will push you to innovate.

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.