You Get Better at What You Do

If you want to get better at innovation, you have start innovating more.

That probably sounds obvious, but in practice, not all that many people do it.

I was reminded of this by an interesting post by John Gruber discussing Apple’s transition to cloud computing. It includes this section:

Jason Fried had a good cover story for Inc. magazine last month, on how to get good at making money. His advice in a nutshell: you get good at making money by actually making money:

“I can’t say enough about bootstrapping. Whether you’re starting your first business or your next one, my advice is to bootstrap it. Bootstrapping forces you to think about making money on Day One. …”

Eye-rollingly obvious, perhaps, but so is much of the best but most-ignored advice in life. Almost nothing worthwhile is easy, and it’s hard to just jump in and be good at something difficult right off the bat. Think, say, of Twitter, whose business plan, such that it is, has always been something along the lines of “Get big and popular, then just flip the switch and start making money when we feel like it”. There is no switch.

The only reliable way to succeed at anything is to actually do it, repeatedly, with concentrated effort. True for individuals, and true for organizations. Athletes, artists, businesses.

This is just as true of innovation as it is of anything else. We always want to be instantly good at new things (well, maybe you don’t, but I sure do, and so do a lot of people that I run across). You have to go through the experience of getting to the point where you’re skilled.

In innovation terms, that means that you get better at it when you start executing the innovation process: you generate ideas, you select the ones on which to concentrate, you figure out how to make these ideas work, and you get the ideas to spread.

There’s no way to simply jump to the point where you’re great at all of these steps. That’s part of my point with the innovation matrix – it’s the act of executing ideas that moves you up the Innovation Competence axis. Too often I’ve seen firms hope that getting the right tools is all they have to do to become more innovative.

The problem with that approach is that tools don’t make you execute ideas. They can help, but you have to execute ideas consistently, over an extended period of time to build innovation skills.

Because you can only get better at what you do, the way to get better at innovating is to start innovating.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

5 thoughts on “You Get Better at What You Do

  1. I hadn’t seen the innovation matrix post, but I like the matrix now that I do see it.

    I’m wondering whether the matrix represents a view that there are people who have little or no innovation capability. I know that some believe that only certain people are – or can be – creative, and I believe your intent here is to encourage people and organizations to exercise their [sometimes latent?] creative capacities, but using the label “No Innovation Capability” seems a bit harsh.

    On a lighter note, in reading this, I was reminded of a joke I’ve heard that pokes fun at people who say they want to be a writer, but never get around to [starting] writing:

    First man: “I’m writing a book.”
    Second man: “Neither am I.”

  2. LOL at the Joke, Joe. I’ll add, “Me, either.”

    This post reminds of something Confucius said which got me through a particularly dark period in my life a few years back. I’ve since shared it with several friends mucking their way through hard times.

    “It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.”

    We could all use such a reminder now and again. :)

  3. Joe – LOL, love the joke

    Brian – love the quote.

    Well, here is another quote I like -“The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”

    I think too often people “fill” their cup once and then assume that they can be good at anything. Success at innovation comes from repeatedly filling (& emptying) one’s cup as one moves along the path.

    Even big corporations make this mistake. Nokia is an example of a company that was at the peak of innovation some years ago. But they forgot to empty the cup and fill it with new ideas — and as a result they have been trampled by firms like Apple. RIM is another example

    Tim – good post. Great matrix. Enjoyed the read.


  4. Thanks for the comments guys.

    @Joe – When I made the matrix I was thinking more about firms than about people. I agree that it would be a harsh thing to say about people. In general, I’m in the “everyone has the capacity to be innovative” camp. But firms that fail to tap into that potential bug me, and that’s what’s reflected in the matrix. I’m still refining it though.

    @Brian – That’s a great quote – thanks!

    @Ned – I read that RIM story today too, and I think you’re right about the problems that big companies can face. Even small companies that have done well can run into this problem…

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