Four Ways You Can Be More Innovative

Innovation is the process of idea management. This means that to innovate effectively you need to have great ideas, select the best ones and execute them, and then get those executed ideas to spread.

All three steps are interdependent, and you need to be good at all three to innovate effectively. Today I’m interested in things you can do to get better at getting your ideas to spread. The improvement points cover all three steps of the innovation process, and I picture it like this:

To get better at getting your great ideas to spread, you can do three things:

  1. Have better ideas,
  2. Get better at making your ideas real, or
  3. Find better networks into which you send them.

Have Better Ideas

The first two ways you can be more innovative are:

  • 1. Move to a more densely populated, better educated city.
  • 2. Make your city more densely populated & better educated.

What do these two things do? They give you access to a more diverse range of ideas, which in turn make your own ideas better. Two books have addressed this recently. Harvard academic Edward Glaeser has written Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier,and The Economist Editor Ryan Avent has an excellent little eBook called The Gated City. A lot of the foundational research covered in both books has been done by Glaeser, and he writes very well, but I prefer Avent’s book by a small margin.

Both authors make the point that cities with higher population density are more productive, primarily because this increased density leads to an increase in innovation. Here is what Avent says:

Innovation is rarely an individual act. Complex problems often take time and multiple perspectives to solve. The atmosphere of communicative competition within big cities is incredibly good at facilitating this process. Talented workers in similar fields wrestle with problems, try to top each other, learn from each others’ mistakes, hire each other, fire each other and inadvertently create competitors, and generally advance the state of knowledge within an industry.

Density boosts productivity, economists find, though estimates of the effect differ. Antonio Ciccone and Robert Hall find that doubling county-level employment density raises productivity 6%. They note that over half of the variation in output per worker across US states can be explained by density. That’s remarkable. Employment density – not skill level, not the composition of industry, not tax policy – explains most of the difference in productivity across states. Timothy Harris and Yannis Ioannides also find that doubling density raises productivity by 6%.

Jaison Abel, Ishita Dey, and Todd Gabe find, by contrast, that doubling the density raises productivity by just 2% to 4%. They add a caveat, however: the impact of density on productivity varies with the stock of human capital – essentially how skilled a city is. Cities with low worker skill levels experience virtually no productivity improvement from increased density. The productivity gains in skilled cities, on the other hand, are twice the average.

So you can improve your personal innovation performance by moving to a bigger city, and tapping into the diverse networks there. Just make sure it’s a well-educated city (these are more fun to live in anyway!).

If this seems like too much trouble, then you should at least work to encourage immigration into your current city. Get culturally diverse, well-educated migrants moving to your city.

Get Better at Making Your Ideas Real

For many people, the fun parts of creative work are having the exciting ideas in the first place, and seeing those ideas come to fruition at the end of the process. The part in between isn’t as much fun. As Dorothy Parker said: “I hate writing. I like having written.”

There are a whole string of books written that basically try to spur people to action – to execute their ideas. They read like self-help books, but a lot of times, innovative people do in fact need to help themselves to get their ideas out the door. Seth Godin has published a series of these books as part of his Domino Project, including: his own Poke the Box,Do the Workby Steve Pressfield, and most recently The Flinchby Julien Smith.

Which you prefer will depend on whose style of writing you respond to most strongly. My favourite of the three is The Flinch. In it, Smith describes The Flinch as the response that we have to danger – we put our hands up in front of ourselves for protection, and flinch. He contends that while this response was evolutionary useful in the days when anything surprising was in fact likely to cause us harm, these days we flinch at things that don’t threaten us at all. The Flinch is the response that prevents us from executing ideas. If they are just ideas that no one else ever hears, then they won’t be rejected, and we won’t be hurt.

But they also won’t be loved, and we won’t accomplish the things that we hope to.

To be more innovative, we have to conquer The Flinch. Smith’s recommendation is to train ourselves to do things that are difficult:

Consider this: in your corridor, every flinch is a door you can open with a new scar and lesson behind it, the same way a kid learns by touching the burner. It’s an experiment—an attempt at something new. Not all experiments hurt, but all of them are valuable—and if you don’t open doors, you’ll never get the scars or learn the lessons. Open doors mean expanded options. The flinch will block you, but once the door is open, the threat vanishes. A new path appears.

But there’s a secret here, too: getting lost is not fatal. Almost every time, it will make your world bigger. You can look at the edges of your map, the places you were unsure about. Old explorers even had a phrase for it: “Here be dragons.”

The ability to withstand the flinch comes with the knowledge that the future will be better than the past. You believe that you can come through challenges and be just as good as you were before them. The more positive you are, the easier it is for you to believe this. You move forward and accept tough situations, so no matter the breakup, the job loss, or the injury, you believe you’ll recover and end up fine. If you believe this, you’re right.

The book currently costs $0 (that’s right – $0!), so there’s not much excuse for not checking it out. You should get this book, read it, and try out the ideas in it- they can help you be more innovative.

Here is an interview with Smith by Chris Brogan that explains more about the book (it contains swearing):

Find a Better Network

Ideas diffuse through networks. One way that you can be better at innovating is to find a network that is more receptive to your ideas. As Seth Godin says in his TED talk, you’re much better off sending your ideas to people that really care about them, and if you’re lucky, they’ll tell their friends.

Recent research has shown how ideas spread through networks – and that a small minority of committed people within a group can get everyone within the group to buy the idea:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”
As an example, the ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt appear to exhibit a similar process, according to Szymanski. “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”

10% can be a small number of you are in the right group. On the other hand, if you’re trying to sell everyone in China on your idea, 10% is a pretty massive number. So you need to give some thought to the network that you’re pitching your idea to.

To identify the right network, you need to have a very clear idea of what your value proposition is, and who will gain the most benefit from what you have to offer. People resist new ideas, so you have to find a way to give them ideas that really matter.

The key point is that you have to choose. Don’t try to appeal to everyone, because winning over 10% of everyone is really hard. Create specific value for a specific group, and you can get to that 10% more easily.

There are other ways that you can get better at getting your ideas to spread. But these are all good places to start.

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.

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4 thoughts on “Four Ways You Can Be More Innovative

  1. Innovation, we encounter this term most often, but emulating it is the hardest of them all. Love the simplistic approach here with these three steps you shared. I guess, a good idea will earn you respect.. but a great idea will bring the whole world knocking at your door. Thanks for the advice!

  2. If Dorothy Parker wasn’t already dead I would advise her to stop writing. Dropping the deadpan wit for a moment (ok mine is inferior to hers), I think the sentiment is all wrong. Flow (for the author) is achieved in the creation not post creation – anything else smacks of resting on the laurels. The joy is in conception & execution, not some sort of post coital thing – except perhaps if you really nail it

  3. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment Rob. I agree with you, but at the same time, I think it accurately reflects the way that a lot of people think about it. I’m sure you’ve run into too – there are a lot of people that really like the idea of having a PhD, but can’t come to grips with writing one, for example.