If you've read any of the million books about how to be more innovative--or seen any of the many TED Talks on the topic--you've undoubtedly heard that "the world is changing faster than ever." You may have also heard you need to "innovate or die," as if threats could somehow inspire creativity.
You've likely been introduced to several especially innovative people or products, then been told that a few simple tweaks to the way you think might help you become as creative and world-changing as these titans. It's a popular formula.
It's also wrong. Innovation isn't about the way you "think" so much as it's about how you react in moments of opportunity.
Innovation Is Just for Geniuses
When innovation is discussed, the most common example given is Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Jobs is put on a pedestal, and many believe innovation is reserved for geniuses. This just isn't true.
You can improve your capacity for innovation if you're intentional about it. I talked with Jeff Havens, the author of Us vs. Them, and is a keynote speaker about innovation in the workplace. Havens has a unique approach to workplace challenges, and it shows when he takes the stage to talk about it. Havens shared, "The notion that innovative thinking is something reserved for a privileged minority of geniuses is a fallacy that people and companies accept at their own peril."
In my work with founders and CEOs of fast-growth companies, I see this issue more than I would expect. One major factor that comes up with these leaders is over indexing on their fear of failure. They tend to overthink opportunities for innovation because they don't want to be wrong.
There are four steps to overcome that fear:
1. Ask a simple question.
Form a question, any question at all, that pertains to your business. "How can we improve employee retention?" is common. So is, "What are we going to do to expand our business?"
Note that these questions aren't especially complicated. Answering them might be, but the questions themselves are basic, and that's true, regardless of the industry you're in. "Is there a way to create a legal way for downloading music?" is the question that ultimately led to iTunes.
2. Think about the answer.
Once you have your question in place, actually think about it. This isn't difficult, although we've managed to invent a billion different ways to distract ourselves. The key to all innovation, however, is finding a sufficient amount of quality time to dedicate to answering the questions we've posed.
Don't let fear get in the way of thinking. You don't have to nail this in your first session, but it's important to create time to think. I've found that most of the best ideas come with time, often when I'm doing something completely different--not actively thinking about the question.
3. Do something to move forward.
This part of the process is vital. Once you have an idea of what to do, do it. That's it. It's so simple and straightforward that it's almost embarrassing to write. Thankfully, though, this is the part of the process that everyone understands. Everyone knows how to work toward a goal once we know what the goal is.
That, in effect, is the entirety of the innovative process.
4. Iterate until you hit your target.
One key here to remember: Innovation is an iterative process. If your first solution doesn't work, you'll need to revisit the situation to re-frame your question and think up a new strategy. But the process is identical, and it's well within reach of us all.
In fact, it's something all of us are doing on a regular basis, even if we don't call it innovation. "Think about a family trying to figure out how to save enough money to send their kids to college," Havens suggests. The process they're going through is identical in every way to the process a company will go through as it decides how to streamline its processes to be more competitive in a tight market.
Many of the solutions a family might come up with--cutting back on expenses, looking for scholarships, researching loans, moving to a state with lower tuition--are virtually indistinguishable from the solutions a company might land on. These might include reducing capital expenditures, seeking out additional business opportunities, applying for grants, refinancing debt, or relocating their facilities.
Framed this way, innovation looks a lot less daunting. If all you're asking is for people to be curious, ask questions, and then find some time to get together to brainstorm answers to those questions. That way, you'll help everyone realize they can be part of your company's innovative framework.