Discovery Skill #1: Association – Leadership Network Blog
Welcome to our series of posts covering the five ‘discovery skills’ of innovative leaders. If you missed the introductory post, you can catch it here.
The first discovery skill is “association”. Association is the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields. The art of connecting has long been recognized as central to innovative thinking. Serial innovator and late Apple CEO Steve Jobs observed that “Creativity is connecting things.” Author, TED presenter, and student of great ideas Steven Johnson commented that “Chance favors the connected mind.” The more adept a leader is at connecting divergent principles and ideas, the greater the likelihood that innovative strategies will emerge.
The world’s most innovative companies stay on top by taking advantage of the divergent associations of their founders, executives, and employees. For example, Pierre Omidyar launched eBay in 1996 after linking three unconnected dots:
- A fascination with creating more-efficient markets, after having been shut out from a hot internet company’s IPO in the mid-1990s
- His fiancée’s desire to locate hard-to-find collectible Pez dispensers
- The ineffectiveness of local classified ads in locating such items.
Likewise, Steve Jobs was able to generate idea after idea because he has spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things—the art of calligraphy, meditation practices in an Indian ashram, the fine details of a Mercedes-Benz.
To grasp how associating works, it is important to understand how the brain operates. The brain doesn’t store information like a dictionary, where you can find the word “theater” under the letter “T.” Instead, it associates the word “theater” with any number of experiences from our lives. Some of these are logical, while others may be less obvious. For instance, we may associate “theater” with “anxiety” from a botched performance in high school. The more diverse our experience and knowledge, the more connections the brain can make. Fresh inputs trigger new associations; for some, these lead to novel ideas.
Where Do You Go to Practice Association?
According to the authors of The Innovator’s DNA, associating is like a mental muscle that can grow stronger by using the other discovery skills. As innovative leaders engage in these behaviors, they build their ability to generate ideas that can be recombined in new ways. The more frequently people attempt to understand, categorize, and store new knowledge, the more easily their brains can naturally and consistently make, store, and recombine associations and ideas.
Throughout history, various environments were either created or simply leveraged in order to increase the odds of fostering innovative ideas. From the creative explosion in Florence during the Renaissance when the Medici family brought together people from a wide range of disciplines to bring about new ideas, to the eighteenth-century English coffee houses of the Enlightenment Age, we find evidence of the importance of “third places”, connective environments that facilitate creative association.
So the question is: Where is your “third place”? Where do you go to practice your discovery skills?
For more than 30 years Leadership Network has been creating “third place” environments that allow innovative leaders the opportunity to practice critical discovery skills. Our newest experience, HUB, creates an even greater opportunity for teams to connect ideas that can lead to exponential impact. By bringing together more leaders, teams, and ‘experts’ under one roof than ever before, conversations will be richer, interactions more robust, and results more easily reached. Just as connecting is central to creative thinking, the HUB experience is central to ongoing Kingdom innovation!
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