It seems that innovation is now an imperative for every company and every CEO. Leaders all stress the importance of agility, entrepreneurship and innovation in their organisations yet most of them are frustrated by slow progress.

What can we do to boost our lateral thinking and creativity?

How can we and our teams become the innovative pioneers we aspire to be?

One way is to mimic the approaches of great innovators from the past. What did they do and which of their insights can we apply in our work? Here are some legendary innovators and their lessons for us:

  • Muhammad Yunus: Innovate by minimising. Most banks would make only large loans and they required some form of collateral. Yunus founded the Grammen Bank in Bangladesh and pioneered microfinance making very small loans to groups of women and asking for no security. The resulting economic growth and development led to him receiving the Nobel Prize.
  • Anita Roddick: Do the opposite. Swim against the tide. When she set up The Body Shop Roddick deliberately did the reverse of what the industry leaders and experts did. She saw that cosmetic stores were stuffy places that sold toiletries, perfumes and medicinal creams in expensive packaging and pretty bottles. She did the opposite by packaging the goods in her stores in cheap, plastic bottles with plain labels. The store gave refills. It saved cost and it made a statement that the contents of the packages were what mattered.
  • Woody Allen: Recruit people who are cleverer than you. Allen says ‘I hire great people and then I exploit them. I look like a hero, that’s the trick.’ He gives the actors in his films the freedom to work on their own. Woody Allen tells his stars what the goals are and then asks for their ideas and suggestions. Very often, other people’s best ideas are better than yours, so don’t be afraid to go with their ideas
  • David Bowie: Be uninhibited in your collaborations. Bowie kept looking for fresh ideas by collaborating with different people. These collaborations led to innovations in style and musical direction. He did not simply recycle his early success but searched for fresh ideas – some of which surprised and annoyed his original fans but earned him new ones.
  • Hans Christian Anderson: Mix with people outside your comfort zone. Hans Christian Andersen went to a lunatic asylum to hear the stories of warders and inmates. They fuelled his imagination. He went on to create ingenious and inspirational fairy stories. Search out different, even random people, if you want different and radical ideas.
  • Levi Strauss: When one line of approach fails, try another. Use a setback as a spur to innovation. Strauss did not persist in pushing tents when there was little demand. He adapted and used the tenting material to make trousers. He produced what his customers needed.
  • William Shakespeare: Borrow with pride. The greatest writer in the English language borrowed most of the plots for his plays from previous works. If borrowing and developing storylines from others was good enough for Shakespeare, then it is good enough for the rest of us. We can benefit from his technique of taking a good idea and developing it with our own individual notions and style.

These examples are taken from Paul Sloane’s new book, Think like an Innovator – 76 inspiring lessons from the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Paul Sloane is the author of many books on lateral thinking , creativity and innovation. He speaks and runs corporate master classes on these topics. He was formerly in Sales, Marketing and Executive positions with IBM and software companies.