Innovation has become a ubiquitous word nowadays in companies’ mission statements. But what does innovation really mean? Is it just introducing changes or novelties to existing products? I believe it’s more than that.
Innovation is doing something radically different from what everyone else is doing. Companies that experience massive growth and transform industries and societies are those that make things differently.
These companies seek to generate new demand or expand their markets instead of fighting with the competition for an existing market share. Their products are magnetic and people can’t stop talking about them because they capture their imagination and provide inspiration.
The difference lies in their focus. These companies don’t just try to gradually improve an existing product (like a smartphone with more megapixels); they don’t settle with listening to their customers and adding the features they ask for.
These companies inspire and surprise their clients, giving them more than what they dreamed was possible.
These companies do not compete with others but focus on doing what they do with excellence, 10 times better than anybody else until their competitors seem infinitely inferior. In fact, they go beyond improving a product and focus on improving the future by transforming their industries. This is the case of Apple with the iPod and iTunes, transforming the music industry.
How can you find those transforming ideas that will make you stand out as an entrepreneur?
If you want to innovate, start by changing your mindset
It all starts with an innovation mindset — a mindset that leads to wanting to find significant solutions that impact the world instead of just making money selling gadgets.
It’s said that when Google founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began working on their search engine, they told themselves that their product would change the world. And they did. The world wouldn’t be what it is today (for better or for worse) without Google’s legacy.
An entrepreneur with an innovation mindset will create solutions that are radically (10x) better for every process in his business (marketing, sales, management) and not only in the definition of the product or the vision of the company.
Not long ago, I read an article by an Airbnb former employee where he praised that company’s innovation culture. He tells of a time when he overhears one of the founders talking to a web designer back in the early days and telling him to create a website as the Internet had never seen before.
That vision of being different and making an impact permeates everything that Airbnb does, even its website. It’s no wonder that Airbnb is a threat to the hotel industry.
This mindset is not the result of luck or inspiration. It requires using creative methods for idea generation. Let me describe some of those methods.
How to innovate in business
We can all innovate in business. We just need to think out of the ordinary and be creative. Here are some practical exercises to kindle your creativity.
1. Let your creative juices flow with brainstorming
Thomas Edison’s notebooks were filled with crazy invention ideas. One entry from January 3rd, 1888 had more than a hundred ideas: a snow compressor, artificial silk, synthetic ivory, and an electric piano among other ideas.
Uncensored brainstorming is useful to silence the inner critic and connect our brain to creativity. It helps us discover our passions because when we do it for a while, patterns emerge. You may discover a passion outside your profession or known abilities. That’s good. Many successful companies were founded by people who knew nothing about their industry.
In fact, not having lots of inside information was an advantage because they came up with original ideas without anyone telling them it couldn’t be done.
Airbnb’s history is a great illustration. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had no previous experience in the hospitality industry but now they’re a giant of that industry. And it all started with an idea to make a few extra bucks. Read the story of how they got started here.
When brainstorming, come up with as many ideas as you can. Quantity will eventually lead to quality.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write between 30 and 50 ideas of a business you could start this week or a new product for your existing business. Don’t overthink it and don’t analyze whether it’s feasible or not. They can be generic ideas, not necessarily detailed descriptions.
For instance, you can start with a list of areas you want to explore: an educational app, a healthy food service, crafts, online courses, something with animals, extreme sports, etc.
Just let your creativity loose.
2. Solve problems in a new way
It’s said that Facebook was created because Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t get a date. He had a problem finding a date so he created the student directory of his university to compare girls.
Just becoming aware of the daily problems around you can generate innovative ideas. Ask yourself all the time, what’s the problem here? Then find a solution.
Once you become used to think in terms of solutions, start thinking outside your daily routines and instead think about ideas of global impact and long term solutions. That’s where really innovative ideas come from.
Now, let’s look at three creative ways to solve problems.
Transfer solutions from one industry an apply them in another one, usually changing some elements.
Just like a hummingbird takes pollen from one flower to another, an entrepreneur can take solutions from one location to another.
This was the case of Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, who was inspired by the cafes he saw in Italy and took the concept to the United States. In fact, he began with an espresso bar called Il Giornale, with formally dressed waiters and opera music playing in the background. Apparently, people in Seattle didn’t like that, so he switched opera for jazz and added tables and chairs for people to work while they enjoyed their coffee.
Identify a concept that works in one place and plug it in somewhere else.
Examine why and how the concept worked originally and what things would make it work again.
Recognize gaps and fill them with what is lacking.
Try to see problems and design new products or services to satisfy unmet needs in the market. Instead of focusing on existing solutions, search for what’s missing. Listen to the silence, pay attention to what others ignore — and when you become aware of something that’s not working, ask why.
Mix existing concepts to obtain new and different results. Come up with new stuff by joining opposite concepts. A couple of examples are glamping and luxury SUVs.
Which of the above are you?
Find 20 problems during the day without thinking about the solutions right away — they may be small or big problems.
If you have an existing business these can be: our customers are not aware of our products, our production costs are too high, people are not willing to pay what we charge for our services, etc.
If you don’t have a business, look for problems in every day life such as bad breath, a dry mouth while you sleep, having no time to buy groceries, etc.
When you have the list with the 20 problems, start generating ideas. Bear in mind that there can be several solutions for one problem, or that one of the problems in your list can lead to other more interesting problems.
3. Question assumptions and reinvent a product
Many times there’s no innovation because we get used to the way things are, to the status quo. Innovation comes when we question widely held beliefs about the world and the things around us and we begin to look at our surroundings with a new perspective.
For instance, when people questioned the basic assumptions about a chair — four legs, used to sit down — they came up with chairs with no legs, no backrest, standing chairs, and even uncomfortable chairs so people would not linger at fast-food restaurants.
Pick a product or service in an area that interests you and write down 20 assumptions about it. Then question those assumptions and create three business ideas inspired by the results.
Time to innovate
People start a business and launch new products or services every day, but more than 90% of new companies close down within 2 years.
That’s why it’s so important to innovate and to do it now. Use the methods above to start generating ideas today.