How great business innovators are made (not born)

July 13, 2011: 2:13 PM ET

You don't need to play the part of Steve Jobs and take off for an Ashram to become more creative, but two new books leave little doubt that becoming a more innovative thinker requires serious prep work.

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Not long ago, creativity guru Todd Henry recommended to one of his consulting clients, a high-ranking manager, that he set aside one hour a week to generate new ideas -- "one hour, predictably scheduled, no exceptions and no violations," Henry says in his book, The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice. "This is not time to do work. This is time to think about work."

That executive's reaction, Henry recalls: "He fired back at me, 'What?! You just want me to sit around and think?!"

In today's wired, 24/7 business climate, most people can relate. Who has time to sit and ponder? Yet, Henry writes, companies pay employees, particularly leaders, for the value they create, and "you can create infinitely greater value for the company in an hour of skilled, focused thought about critical problems than by responding to your email slightly faster."

Let's say you're willing to try setting aside an hour a week for pondering, but you think you're just not the creative type. "There is a persistent myth in the workplace that creativity is a mystical and elusive force that sits somewhere between prayer and the U.S. tax code on the ambiguity scale," Henry muses.

In coaching hundreds of businesspeople through his firm, Accidental Creative, Henry writes, he's realized that anyone, from graphic artists to chief financial officers, can boost their capacity for "regular flashes of creative insight."

An essential step: Get out of your own way. Unlike most tomes on innovation, The Accidental Creative acknowledges the real-world stumbling blocks that would-be innovators face -- from fear of failure to bureaucratic busywork -- and offers specific strategies for getting past them.

The authors of The Innovator's DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators agree with Henry that creative people are made, not born, a conclusion they reached by way of exhaustive research.

Professors Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen, of the Marriott School at Brigham Young University and INSEAD respectively, and Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, teamed up to conduct an eight-year study that collected data from more than 600 inventors and 5,000 executives in 75 countries.

The result: Innovation is "an active endeavor," the authors write. "Apple's slogan 'Think Different' is inspiring but incomplete. Innovators must consistently act different to think different."

How? The Innovator's DNA describes five habits that turned up in their study time and time again. One of these is gathering a wide range of seemingly unrelated experiences. The authors note that Steve Jobs has experimented with new things all his life, "from meditation and living in an Ashram in India to dropping in on a calligraphy class at Reed College," all of which would later trigger ideas for new features in Apple (AAPL) products. "Creativity is connecting things," Jobs once said.

Nobody needs to take off for an Ashram to become more creative, but these books leave little doubt that becoming a more innovative thinker takes patience and hard work. Groundbreaking ideas, even those that look like bolts from the blue, usually come from painstaking preparation. Or, as Louis Pasteur put it, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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