Teach Your Children to Innovate

by Drew Boyd

Future InnovatorsParents teach their children many things: morals, etiquette, religion, sports, cleanliness, walking, cooking, riding a bicycle, reading, writing, math, discipline, safety, driving a car…the list goes on and on. What if you could give your child the life-long ability to innovate? What a gift indeed. This issue surfaced after a string of emails with one of our blog readers who wants her child to learn innovation (thanks, Trish!). Can children learn a corporate innovation method at such an early age?

I’ve taught children how to innovate, and it is one of the most rewarding feelings you can have. I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th graders the method called Systematic Inventive Thinking. I was surprised and a bit unnerved how well they did. After teaching the five templates of innovation (over a five weekly sessions), each child completed a “final exam” by innovating a new-to-the-world product using one of the templates in just 30 minutes! I was amazed. The PowerPoint slides I used for this training are in the READING section of the blog if you wish to download them.

Here are some pointers for teaching your children to innovate:

1. Equate innovation to other skills-based activities

  • Innovating takes skill just like sports or dancing. Don’t let your children think innovation is some special, innate talent that only certain people have. This creates an artificial barrier, one that I see too often in the corporate environment, and it prevents people from trying to be innovative. Innovating is a skill, and it can be learned by anyone, even those who are not creative in the traditional sense.

2. De-emphasize patents

  • For some reason, kids are fascinated with patents. They tend to see patents as the ultimate reward of innovation. Patents do not equate to successful innovation; rather, they equate to getting legal status regarding an invention. If a child invents something that has already been invented, this is a success. In fact, it is a huge success because it shows an ability to create novel ideas that have a track record of success. Be sure to reward your child if they invent something that exists. Send the message: if you can invent something that is already shown to be successful, you can definitely be the first to invent something new and useful.

3. Apply innovation across a wide variety of situations

  • It is not just for inventing new products. Teach you children to apply innovation methods to things like writing a poem, doing school work, or getting dressed in the morning. Have them invent a new way to clean their room or play with a toy. Help them equate innovation with creating novelty in the everyday things. Make innovation a routine way to tackle new situations.

4. Distinguish between innovation skills and problem solving skills

  • Both are useful, but are often confused as the same. They are related, but different. Help them see problem solving as what to use when the problem is very well defined and must be solved. Help them see innovating as the set of tools to use when new approaches are needed for an existing task. Example: Innovate a new way to clean their room, but problem-solve when they want to avoid having to do it.

5. Teach “ambidextrous” innovation

  • Help them understand the two directions of innovation: Problem-to-Solution and Solution-to-Problem. Example: if the kitchen toaster burns the bread every morning, and they see a novel way to fix it, that is Problem-to-Solution. Other the other hand, if they imagine the toaster is like a TV that is “on demand,” then make the connection that this would help mom get toast ready precisely when everything else is ready, that is Solution-to-Problem innovation.

6. Set an example

  • Parents struggle teaching children anything unless the parents demonstrate those skills themselves. Whether it is table manners, proper grammar, or how to treat other people, parents must “walk the talk.” Innovation is no different. Let children see how you and others, especially other children, use innovation methods to do cool things, fun things, important things.

(Pictured are two future innovators, Emerson and Margo, from Cincinnati, Ohio)


Drew Boyd is Director of Marketing Mastery for Johnson & Johnson (Ethicon Endo-Surgery division). He is also Visiting Assistant Professor of Marketing and Innovation at the University of Cincinnati and Executive Director of the MS-Marketing program. Follow him at www.innovationinpractice.com and at http://twitter.com/drewboyd

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