Innovation: everybody wants some! Below are 8 practical tips anyone can apply. These ideas are meant to propel the kind of actionable learning the drives innovation. Let’s get started.
1. Start with the Individual
When I hear “our market is males 25-35” I can’t see how that leads to innovation. When I hear that, I think “I’m worried for you.” I worry competitors are going to re-segment their market, deliver something more relevant to their sub-segments, and dismantle their business piece by piece.
Creating prescriptive, actionable learning based on observing the individual has always been central to design research and the practice of needfinding. Product inspiration comes from relatable experiences and those start with the individuals.
I recommend anchoring your understanding of the customer with personas and then attaching trios of a) problem scenarios b) alternatives and c) value propositions to drive to insights that are vivid, actionable, and testable.
2. Anchor to Problems, Not Solutions
Like it or not, it’s in our nature to get an idea, fall in love with it, run off and build it, then hope our audience/market loves it. It’s OK–don’t feel bad about it.
But try not to do it. When we instead spend the time to understand customer problems and test our ideas against that understanding, we’re much more likely to succeed. Problems, whether they’re jobs at a business or the needs of an individual, rarely change. Solutions change all the time and every single one is temporary.
3. Become a Better Storyteller
If you hear innovators like Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square) talk about their process, you’ll often hear them mention how they’ve become a better storyteller. It turns out this simple skill that we learn as children and then (generally) unlearn in our subsequent education is a great way to propel innovation.
Storytelling is an effective way to evaluate a hypothetical future where your new idea has achieved relevance in terms that are vivid, actionable and even testable.
One tool I like is storyboarding. It trains you to be a good storyteller, creating narratives that are sequential and visual.
4. Circulate Ideas
Even really strong product ideas have something like a 1/20 chance of succeeding, so for consistently successful innovation you need a healthy flow of new ideas. Doing this is harder than it sounds.
Our emotional wiring makes us want to compel others to our ideas and actions. When others don’t like our ideas we feel hurt, anxious. Back when we were cavemen, I guess that was an adaptive trait. But our mental wiring changes over the millennia while our operating environment changes decade to decade.
The general rubric of “design thinking” offers tools that help us discipline our emotional nature to be more effective collaborators and hence innovators. If you’re not familiar with design thinking, it’s a framework for pairing empathy with creativity to drive structured solution ideas.
5. Test Early, Test Often
Innovation is a high risk sport on an idea by idea basis, but you can dramatically increase the quality and reliability of your outcomes in the way you manage new concepts.
Creating structured ideas and then figuring out creative ways to test them is central to lean and the Lean Startup movement, not to mention the scientific method itself. And it turns out it’s a great way to innovative, even if you’re short on resources.
6. Learn First, Scale Second
It’s hard to find anyone that disagrees with the importance of learning, but it’s also hard to find people that actually put it first, even in a situation where innovation is important. Why? I think there are two main reasons.
First, how do you feel when you cross something off your to-do list? Awesome, right? Me, too. How would you feel if you had to put it back on that list 5, 6, 7 times? That’s why it’s hard. When you test (well,) you’ll likely find you need to revise. That’s the best way to innovate but it’s emotionally daunting.
Second, most of what we learn about ‘business’ and hold to be the well-established truth is based on scaling existing businesses in relatively static markets. These techniques were good in the 20th century, but bad in the innovative, globalized, hyper-competitive 21st century.
7. Kill Zombie Ideas
In a successful innovation program, you have a lot of turnover in ideas. The reverse is also true. Lots of typical corporate patterns squelch innovation: getting married to solutions (vs. problems), having solutions looking for problems, the sunk cost fallacy.
Most ideas fail because either a) they weren’t well anchored in the reality of the customer/user or b) they just weren’t meant to be. Items 1-3 will help you better anchor your ideas and items 4-6 will separate the wheat from the chaff.
8. Get Out There a Lot
Innovation is a contact sport. No one learns these skills just by reading material. I recommend finding as many places as you can to practice and see what works where.
Fun fact: the human eye is completely dependent on constant motion and seeing the differences between things. Even if you’re staring at something your eye is probably moving. If you are actually able to still your eye to a single point, your field of vision fades away completely. Innovation’s like that.
If you’re in the SF Bay Area, I’m teaching a workshop series, ‘Innovating in the Enterprise’ at General Assembly starting this October. If you’re interested:
The Venture Design section of my site also has applicable tutorials, examples, and templates.
This post originally appeared on Alex Cowan’s Blog.
Learn more about business fundamentals.