I gave a short talk a week ago trying to address the question of how to become innovative. I tried to sum up and put in a few slides some very basic thoughts of mine out of my very limited experience thus far, and came up with a pretty rough -if not hasty- presentation. To some of you most of its contents may sound profound, however it seems to have hit a chord, so here I am providing more details, a short paragraph per slide.
Misconception – No matter of academic definitions, our perception of innovation is pretty well summarized into the omnipresent symbol of a light bulb. To me, that mirrors a twofold problem. First, it refers to the mythical figure of Thomas Edison, which typically triggers the “I’m not that good, so I don’t try” reverse halo effect. Second, it concurs with the symbol of idea, suggesting this as the most important part of innovation. I disagree, innovation (also entrepreneurship, or most stuff out there if you ask me) is mostly about execution and persistence, not the initial idea conception.
Meta-study – As a result of that common perception, people tend to actually stay seated on a sofa and perpetually think of what kind of a greatly innovative idea they can come up with. However, waiting for the bulb to light does not lead to innovation, but rather typically to passive stagnation instead. Essentially, the same applies to most of the books studying innovation; people end up being discussants, not practitioners and that’s far from being innovative after all. Let me also stress that your target should not be to get or blog or brag about a third party story of someone else, but you to be the star and lead your own story, with your satisfaction guaranteed.
Complexity, oversold – Having read a ton of books on how to innovate is not a prerequisite at all, plus it ends up not to help as advertised. The more books you read the more accustomed you’re getting to the idea that innovation is a rare outcome of rocket science happening elsewhere and I’m happy to report this as a serious deviation from truth. Things are simple and common sense always prevails, keep this in mind when trying to approach the layers of artificial complexity introduced not by innovators themselves, but by solely external observers of this creative process.
Initiative – So, what’s innovation after all? To me, it’s most important part is taking initiative, everything else in comparison being almost irrelevant. That’s easy to get underestimated, but it does require a fundamental change of mentality, switching from being a passive viewer of other people’s reality to being an active participant and co-shaping it, or —to provide a more tangible example— from lying on the sofa to stand up and start working on your computer. I consider this u-turn the very most important step towards becoming innovative.
Hands on – You aren’t supposed to solve an imaginary problem, or provide a working solution to one you don’t master, you actually cannot. Go find a real problem, study it in detail to become an insider and talk with the experts if you are not yet one (but don’t get deceived by expertise – challenge everything with your common sense before accepting it as a fact); you need to find out what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t before you prescribe a realistic solution. Since you do that, don’t get afraid of the hurdles ahead, just break down your work into small feasible parts and go execute one after another, keeping in mind that with each step you make and each hurdle you overcome you are building your competitive advantage.
Focus & play – People tend to complain or put up fights on issues they are not able to have any impact on. To me, that’s an unfortunate utilization of a very limited set of resources, time being the most critical one. To make (innovative, or not) things happen, you need to solely focus on those problem’s parameters that you can shape, leaving anything else aside, or just monitoring the potential external effects to the things you’re attempting to control. Then, you are ready to play, and the real fun begins. Start, and get the most out of each step, this is first and foremost a learning process. Also, do consider your -much expected- failures as part of the process, the most painful of ways to learn your lessons. Finally, improve yourself and repeat, you’re getting there.
Deliver – When you end up being innovative, remember, innovation is not an end in itself or a target per se. Your objective always needs to be solving a real problem, providing value to the people getting to use your working solution and getting back a small part of this value to sustainably keep going, no matter if you end up being or called innovative after all. And if you’d like to keep a single line out of this long piece, just bear in mind that, buzz aside, innovation alone shall not be your target, initiative and action to make things happen shall be.