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ATD 2016 conference attendees in Denver beat the odds

ATD 2016 conference attendees in Denver beat the odds

When we asked people who visited our ATD (Association for Talent Development) Expo booth this year in Denver, “What brought you to this conference?” they commonly answered that they were looking for “what’s next”… but for different reasons:

  • “To meet our long-term talent development goals”
  • “To improve on the programs we already have”
  • “To discover what’s on the leading edge”
  • “To combine and test out new approaches in unique ways”

Which of these reasons came out on top, overall?

The answer was revealed in the data we plotted for ATD attendees who took our Innovation Styles® self-assessment before and during the conference. And those attendees beat the odds for what we’d expect…

A little background before I explain the data.

Thirty years ago when I was head of Innovation Management at the Stanford Research Institute, I conducted research using 3 sources of data, which revealed four distinct strategies of innovative thinking:

  • Visioning: to envision the ideal future
  • Modifying: to refine and optimize what has come before
  • Exploring: to discover new and novel possibilities
  • Experimenting: to combine and test many variables and options

The decades of data on the Innovation Styles® self-assessments shows an approximate distribution of preferred styles at 25% for each of the four styles. This is especially true as the group numbers get larger.

But in the case of the ATD conference attendees who took the self-assessment, 41% had Exploring as 1 of their top 2 style preferences, 33% had Experimenting, 19% had Visioning, and 7% had Modifying. We might see this kind of skewed distribution in a small team of 6-10 but not in a sampling of 40 or more.

ATD 2016 Innovation Styles pie chart

So what does this tell us about these ATD conference attendees – are they an odd bunch?

One of the buttons we picked up at the Twenty-Eighty expo booth says it all: “I herd cats.” A phrase we often use when we encounter a group profile like this. Those who prefer the Exploring and/or Experimenting styles have one thing in common: they like to approach the innovation process in broad, learning-oriented terms. They seek solutions “to discover what’s on the leading edge” and “to combine and test out new approaches in unique ways.”

The opposite, Visioning and Modifying styles, are much more focused and outcome-oriented: “to meet our long-term talent development goals” and “to improve on the programs we already have.”

So should we conclude that this is the “perfect” group profile for conference attendees? That is, if you send people to the ATD conference next year, should you make sure they have a preference for either the Exploring or Experimenting styles – or better yet, have a preference for both?

Not necessarily.

People who have a preference for the Exploring and/or Experimenting styles often have a hard time coming to closure – they prefer to diverge rather than converge, knowing that there’s always something else to learn and consider before making a “final” decision on an innovative solution. (With them, is there anything really “final”?)

In that light, do these Exploring-Experimenting characteristics ring a bell for you or people you work with?

As strengths:

  • Do you like to be innovative by combining and testing many possibilities, or to challenge assumptions to discover what might evolve?
  • Do you like to keep your options open and to re-consider what you’ve planned, even at the last minute?

As difficulties:

  • Do you find it hard to get focused on a single, important outcome?
  • Do you find it hard to complete something… perhaps getting bored with implementation and wanting to move on to the next new and exciting thing?

These would be typical of the Exploring-Experimenting combination of Innovation Styles®.

Is there a better way?

The temptation is to say a person should have equal tendencies for all four styles. But that’s not practical or even advisable. Each of these “Innovation Styles®” is like a language for thinking innovatively. We each have our own “mother tongue” – our unique preferences and tendencies for using these styles when we need to think innovatively, yet we can learn all four languages.

Awareness and versatility are the key: learning to think in all four ways, as needed, without having to change your basic preferences and tendencies. One way to develop this versatility is to hang out with a colleague who prefers styles opposite to yours. If you like the Exploring and/or Experimenting ways of innovative thinking, you could attend your next conference with someone who prefers the Visioning and/or Modifying styles. That would make for some very interesting debriefs after conference sessions or the Expo visits.

You can also seek out and practices exercises that build the skills for other styles of innovative thinking. And, most importantly, start noticing the diverse ways people think when they need to do something new, better or different and appreciate that all of them make a valuable contribution to the process.

Here’s to you and your natural ability to be innovative!

Debra Miller's picture
About the author

Debra R. Miller, co-founder of Values Centered Innovation, is passionate about consciously co-innovating the future... with good character and conscience!

"Innovation is a conscious, pro-active act of creating your future."