Why do a few entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, seem to come up with all the real innovations, while the majority of business leaders seem stuck in the rut of linear thinking? I have always wondered if innovation required some rare gene mutation, or whether I might be missing a simple formula for unlocking the ability in any intelligent business person to innovate.
While searching for an answer, I was excited by a recent book, “The 4 Lenses of Innovation,” from Rowan Gibson, one of the most recognized thought leaders in business innovation. According to Gibson, you don’t have to be born with magic insights to be innovative. He connects breakthrough thinking to four initiatives, which I believe every entrepreneur should practice:
- Questioning deeply-held beliefs and assumptions. The willingness to challenge accepted approaches and propose non-obvious alternatives is one of the fundamental driving forces for innovation. This is a thinking pattern and a culture which all entrepreneurs needs to instill and nurture in every startup team member.
- Spotting and exploiting emerging trends. Innovative entrepreneurs have to start with a mindset of welcoming change, rather than trying to resist it. They don’t have to be futurists, they just have to be in the current time, not behind the times. Then they have to look for change, and continually hone their skills to turn discontinuity into opportunity.
- Redeploying skills and assets in new ways. Innovators leverage existing skills and assets in new ways, new contexts, and new combinations, rather than assuming that new resources are needed for new opportunities. Strategic partnerships with other companies are a good way to extend the boundaries of your business and recombine resources.
- Paying attention to unmet needs and frustrations. It all starts with a customer perspective to uncover problems and frustrations, and then design solutions from the customer backward. But customers also tend to think linearly, so they don’t always know what they want. It’s up to you to match what is possible with what is needed.
The next step to breakthroughs for entrepreneurs is to take advantage of the powerful digital tools available to foster innovation and ideas, like Innocentive and BrightIdea. There is also the wealth of social media digital tools, like Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp, which allow feedback, engagement, and collaboration with customers like never before.
Other smart entrepreneurs are building digital feedback loops directly into their products to understand exactly how customers use the products, as well as solicit real-time improvement feedback. Today entrepreneurs are already implementing the Internet of Things (IoT), where every device can be connected to the Internet, to provide insight and feedback to your company.
Finally, even with the right mindset and digital tools, creative ideas for entrepreneurs still don’t usually occur spontaneously, or come in a flash of inspiration. Every entrepreneur needs to adopt a more rigorous process, like this eight-step one developed and tested by Thomas Edison and many others to accelerate the production of big breakthrough ideas:
- Select a specific challenge and focus on solving it.
- Research the subject to learn from the work of others.
- Immerse yourself in the problem, to explore possible solutions.
- Recognize when you reach a deadlock, and capitalize on the creative frustration.
- Back away for a while to let the problem incubate in the unconscious mind.
- Be sensitive to any insights which might shift your perspective.
- Extrapolate the insight into a new idea or solution.
- Test and validate the new solution to make it work.
With the right mindset, tools, process, and a little practice, any entrepreneur can lead their startup to new levels of innovation, competitiveness, and success. So don’t wait for the next Einstein, or a magic Eureka moment, to get you into the game. You too can make business innovation look easy.