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  • Innovation: Get Out of Your Way

    By Bob Sanders |

    Bob Sanders, General Manager for our team in Arkansas, shows how to start innovating in part two of this three-part series.


    As I mentioned in part one of this series, there are many reasons to bring new ideas into the world—greater efficiency, accolades, or financial success to name a few. But sometimes we can get too caught up in our heads questioning our ability to innovate. So how do you take that first step?


    Don’t be afraid to adapt existing ideas
    We mythicize massively successful innovators. At a glance, it would appear their success came from a single, brilliant idea. However, look into almost any story of a successful innovator and you’ll see almost any “new” idea in the world started as an improvement on something else.

    Everything is a Remix," Kirby Ferguson’s excellent compendium of iterative invention, explains how so many seemingly unique ideas come from prior source material. Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, interchangeable parts, or the automobile, but combined all those concepts into the first mass-market car. Jurassic Park was just Westworld (no, the 1973 one) with dinosaurs.

    So, soak up the good ideas that exist around you, even in completely unrelated areas of your life. Ask “what if...?” Learn to spot these opportunities to improve what already exists and you’ll begin to see new ideas staring you in the face.

    Innovation is one big loop
    How can you make “what if” thinking a natural, repeatable part of how you work? Innovation can be seen as a permanent loop. It starts with creating space and “fuel” for innovative thought, then slowly developing the idea, making it real, and optimizing it. Let’s call this process the “Innovation Cycle,” which can have several ideas moving through it at any given time:

    1. Idea Generation - come up with an idea The most important part of idea generation is exposing yourself to new information. That may mean targeted exploration of a topic. For example, attending a conference or reading a book. It may also mean undirected exploration — adding topics of interest to your regular information diet so that you can “stumble in to” new ideas.


      Another way to encourage new ideas is to learn to explore tools. Learning a new tool is a great place to start when you don’t know where to start. A programmer might try a new language or framework. An artist might learn a new medium. A business person might take a public speaking course.


      As you slowly accumulate new information, it is vital that you give your mind time to process. The human mind is a powerful tool once you get out of its way. Step back, relax and refocus. Busyness is the enemy of innovation.


      As new ideas come to you, write them down. I call this “The File,” and it can take any form — notes, drawings or sketches. The most important part about “The File” is to keep it handy at all times so you can record your ideas as they come to you.


    1. Idea Realization - get feedback. So you have an idea! Great! Don’t run off and start creating it just yet. Get feedback from the people you trust. No idea is so complete at conception that it survives contact with the world in its original form. Getting input on your idea helps you calibrate it for success. Visualization is vital here —this is where you want to write that white paper, build that pro forma, prototype or sketch. Getting feedback is the first step in seeing how the world may to react to your idea.


      It’s possible you’ll hit a snag at this stage. Maybe you realized a critical flaw in your thinking, or found a technological or political barrier. Don’t give up. Add it to “The File” and let your brain work on it for you.


      If you are leading a team, this step is vital. Your team members will likely see things you won’t. Give them a chance – and the time needed – to give you feedback and contribute to the process.

    Stay tuned for the final edition, ‘Innovation: You Have an Idea. Now What?’

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