One of the most important questions facing any business today – especially those looking to grow their business through innovation – is which characteristics or attributes signal innovation capability in an individual. Innovation, after all, is something that starts with the individual.
Can you distil what makes some of the most innovative people of all time successful? Buckle up for the next 10 minutes as we unlock the secrets of people like Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison and other great innovators, and how you too can apply these innovation skills to your business.
What is innovation?
A lot of people mistake creativity for innovation. Where creativity is thinking up new things, innovation is DOING new things. Creativity is necessary for innovation, but it is not sufficient. It takes a different kind of talent to turn a new idea into something that is successful in the marketplace. But before we get to those behaviours, let’s spend a minute debunking some myths about creativity.
Of course, if you look at it another way, that means that 75-80 percent of our creative ability comes from our experiences and our behaviours. Think about it this way. Let’s say that you have a pair of identical twins. One of these twins stays inside all day and mindlessly watches television for the majority of the day, every single day.
The other twin is more active, and is rarely in the house. That twin is outside interacting with different people who have different perspectives on life. In addition, this twin carries around a notebook and is constantly writing down their thoughts and insights from asking questions like “what if?” and “why not?”.
Which twin do you think is going to be better equipped to come up with more creative solutions to problems in the real world? The curious twin, of course. This should come as a relief to many people, because that means that innovation is something that can be learned and improved upon, just like any other skill.
The 5 discovery skills
Great innovators demonstrate five key skills which separate them from other people. The key skills that all good innovators demonstrate are: (1) associating, (2) questioning, (3) observing, (4) networking, and (5) experimenting.
The five skills are a habit, a practice, and a way of life’ for innovators. However, you don’t need to be a master of all five skills in order to be a master of innovation. Some well-known business leaders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos rely on their own particular strengths since innovative entrepreneurs rarely excel at all five discovery skills.
For example, Scott Cook of Intuit is strong in observational skills. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, does a lot of networking, he says. As for Bezos, experimentation was his forte, while Jobs is incredibly strong at associating.
Creative entrepreneurs ‘connect the dots’ to make unexpected connections. They combine disparate pieces of information and form them into innovative new ideas. Steve Jobs was interested in calligraphy and this eventually led to his company producing user- friendly, graphics-based Macs. He also took his early design cues from Cuisinart kitchen appliances, from which he figured out that you don’t have to sacrifice form for function. In fact, he would show us that good design can even make a product function better.
This week, go to the book store (if they still have those in your neighborhood), and buy at least 5 magazines that have nothing to do with your industry. Read them as though on every page there was an incredible insight that could transform your business. Write down the ideas you generate from the exercise. If you see some ideas you like, make it a point to do this on a regular basis.
Some of the most innovative entrepreneurs are intense observers. Take for example Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit. As the story goes, he saw how frustrated his wife was managing their home finances. She found that doing it manually was a huge pain, and purchased some software to help ease some of that burden. But that additional software only led to more frustration and irritation.
So Cook did what any good husband in his shoes would do – he developed a product that helped his wife solve that problem more effectively. After Cook got a sneak preview of an early Apple computer, he immediately understood how an intuitive version of home finance software would have things like images of checks that looked like they would in the real world.
In essence, he knew that people would find it much easier to use something that already felt familiar to them. These observations led to the development of Quicken.
One of the best ways to get insights that lead to new innovations is to watch people in their natural surroundings. Specifically, watch customers trying to solve a problem that involves your product or service. Do it for an entire day, and do your best not to make any premature judgements about what you see. Then ask yourself this question that Scott Cook uses at Intuit: “what’s different from what I expected”?
When Jeff Bezos, the founder of internet retailer Amazon, was growing up, he used to spend time on his grandfather’s farm in the summer. When machinery broke down on the farm, his grandfather would try to fix it himself, with some help from Jeff. They would experiment, over and over again, until they could get it to work again.
If the animals on the farm got sick, wouldn’t call the vet, but rather experiment and try to problem themselves. What that left Jeff with was the attitude that if he was confronted with a challenge, he was never too far from the solution. That mindset was what led him to create Amazon, brick by metaphorical brick.
At first, the idea had been to sell books via the internet without inventory. It took him a full eight or nine years of experimentation to build the Amazon we know and love today.
In order to become a master of experimentation, you need to think like a scientist – with a data- hypothesis-test mindset. The trick here is to find a way to create an experimentation culture within your company. So, sometime in the next week, create and publicly declare an experiment you are going to undertake, and let everybody see the results. Especially if it was a failure. Your goal is to run the experiment and allow others the latitude to do the same – so a public failed experiment will let them know that it’s ok to experiment and fail, as long as you ask yourself “why”, at the end.
When it comes to innovation, questions are better than answers. Much, much, better. Without asking “what if” on a regular basis, you are unlikely to come up with anything that resembles a good idea – nevermind one that would qualify as an innovation.
Wayne Gretzky famously once said that “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”. Similarly, you’ll miss 100% of the innovations if you don’t ask “what if?”. While it’s true that the great innovators don’t have strengths in every area, this is one where they all excel.
As the Apple “Think Different” campaign tells us, innovators are “not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.” Questions are at the root of this type of behaviour.
Questioning is the most important skill to practice, because increasing your efficiency in this skill will greatly enhance every other skill you need to innovate. So, for the next week, write down 10 new questions every day that will challenge the status quo – it could be the status quo in your industry, company, or even just with yourself. You might find this difficult at first, but eventually you’ll find yourself able come up with more creative questions, which lead to the most creative and innovative answers.
When you hear the word “networking”, it might conjure up nightmares of being stuck in a conference room at a hotel eating breakfast and exchanging business cards with people you would rather not be around…ever. But not all networking needs to be that way.
Innovators use networking as a tool to surround themselves with diverse groups of people who challenge them to think in new ways. This allows them to put themselves in the shoes of a wide range of people, and see that world in a completely different way. These conversations act as fuel for their innovation fire. The differences can be in gender, industry, age, nationality, or even politics. When was the last time you actively sought out thoughts and opinions that were in stark contrast to your own?
This week, contact the five most creative people you know and ask them to spend some time with you. Keep in mind that you want to find the most creative people you know – they could be in the same line of work as you, or they could be in something completely unrelated (even better). Ask them to describe how they stimulate creative thinking.
When you are working on your next challenges, pull out this list and use it for inspiration to get in the right frame of mind to produce creative thoughts and ideas.