People frequently ask me “How can I be more innovative?”
The answer can be elusive, as they are often asking for permission to innovate, which you will rarely receive.
Fortunately, you can learn to be more innovative. Here are some thoughts on how:
- Innovate because you have to. I was talking with Brendan Coram last week about why we write our blogs (his is excellent, and you should check it out). We agreed that we both do it primarily so that we can work out our own ideas. Any extra benefits that we get from blogging are a bonus.
As Joan Didion says:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.
I can’t speak for Brendan, but I write here for the same reason – to find out what I’m thinking, and to make sense of the world.
I write because I have to.
Innovation should be the same. Successful innovators innovate because they have to. They have an idea and they must see it become real. Or they see a problem and they can’t rest until it’s fixed. Or they want to make a ding in the universe.
One way or another, you innovate because you have to.
- Be like Wile E. Coyote (at least a little bit). You know how Wile E. Coyote gets so focused on catching the roadrunner that he runs right off the cliff, and that he never falls until he realises that he’s suddenly hanging in the air?
You need to do that.
I was walking out of a meeting today when I realised that I had run right off the cliff. We had gotten so excited about a potential venture that we sketched out exactly how to get it launched. I had run off the cliff because there are actually some I’s to dot and T’s to cross.
But the issue is that if we hadn’t run ahead of ourselves a bit, we would end up getting overwhelmed by the work involved. And then the idea will die.
Sometimes you have to run off the cliff. Sometimes, you’ll discover you have a parachute. Others, you’ll crash like Wile E. Coyote.
Wile E. Coyote’s problem isn’t that he falls. His problem is that he doesn’t learn from it.
- Don’t innovate to get rich. Check out Mark Zuckerberg:
What did The Social Network get wrong? The motivation for building Facebook.
It’s just such a big disconnect from the way that people make movies think about what we do in Silicon Valley – building stuff…. They just can’t wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things.
So again, innovate because you have to.
- Experiment! No innovation is perfect just from thinking it through. You have to test the idea, and make it better. You have to experiment.
Here are a couple of great quotes on experimenting (from this post) – first, from Clayton Christensen:
Innovation almost always is not successful the first time out. You try something and it doesn’t work and it takes confidence to say we haven’t failed yet. … Ultimately you become commercially successful.
And then from Marissa Mayer:
The Googly thing is to launch [products] early on in Google Labs and then iterate, learning what the market wants — and making it great.’ The beauty of experimenting in this way is that you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back.
Experimenting is the best way to build your innovation competence.
- Don’t ask for permission – just act. Too many people wait for their manager to say that it’s ok to innovate. Genuine innovators are never supported as much as they should be.
Here’s my prescription for getting around this:
- Think about how much you can get away with – if you manage a budget, how much discretion to you have? If you don’t have a budget, what are the parts of your job that you control?
- Make a list of 10 things that you can do within the current scope of your work that will make things better for the people with whom you interact – customers, co-workers, bosses, whoever.
- Do those things.
- Figure out which ones worked, and those more.
- Figure out which ones didn’t work, learn why not, then forget about them.
- Focus on the ideas that went well – even if only one of them works, you just made your work a better place.
The point with this is to just get started with innovation. Try things that are cheap experiments. Learn from failures, amplify successes. Try a lot of ideas at once so that you don’t get too attached to them – if you only have one idea, the stakes are much higher, even for a cheap and quick experiment.
Innovation is about action. The best way to be more innovative is to take steps which build a habit of executing new ideas.
Try some of these ideas out. In the meantime, I’m going to check to see if I have a parachute on me, or if I’m going to crash after running off that cliff this afternoon…