Essay #58 – How to innovate right now

58-1.jpgThe biggest secret of innovation is that anyone can do it. The reason is simple: It’s just not that hard. Look up the word “innovate” in any dictionary and see what it actually means, instead of what you think it means. You’ll find something like this: To innovate is “to introduce something new.” That’s it. It doesn’t say you need to be a creative genius, a workaholic, or even have on clean underwear. It’s just three little words: introduce something new. And I promise that by the end of this essay, you’ll have all the secrets needed to do it yourself.

The key word in the definition is “new.” The common trap about newness is the assumption that new means something the universe has never seen before. This turns out to be the third most ridiculous assumption in the history of mankind (you’ll have to figure out the other two for yourself). Here’s proof: Name any great innovator, and I guarantee they borrowed and reused ideas from the past to make whatever it is they are famous for.

The Wright brothers, the inventors of powered flight in the United States, spent hours watching birds. As boring as it seems, we have bird-watching to thank for the supersonic jet planes we have today. Picasso’s development of cubism, one of the great artistic movements of the last two centuries, was heavily influenced by his exposure to African painting styles, as well as the work of an older French painter, Cezanne. And Thomas Edison did not create the concept of powered light: You’d have to talk to the thousands of people who died before Edison was born who turned wood, wax, oil, and other fuels into controllable and portable light sources (not to mention Joseph Swan, who patented the electric light before Edison).

Even in today’s high-technology world you can find easy connections between what we call “new” and ideas from the past. The World Wide Web and the Internet get their names from things thousands of years old. The first webs were made by spiders, and the first nets were used to catch fish by indigenous people around the world, thousands of years before the first computer. Google, the wonderful search tool, is often called a search engine, in reference to concepts of physical mechanics, not digital bits.

All these examples prove that the trick to innovation is to widen your perspective on what qualifies as new. As long as your idea, or your use of an existing idea, is new to the person you are creating it for, or applies an existing concept in a new way, you qualify as an innovator from their point of view, and that’s all that matters.

Even with these improved definitions, it takes more to make innovation happen. The tool kit of every innovator typically includes three things: questions, experiments, and self-reliance.

Ask Questions.

The easiest place to start is with things you do every day. Simply ask: Who else does this, and how do they do it differently? If you only know one way to do something, you’re making a big assumption. You’re betting that of the infinite ways there are to do it, the single one you know is the best. I’m a gambling man myself, but I wouldn’t make that bet, as those odds, one against infinity, are embarrassingly bad. Even simple things like washing dishes or tying shoelaces have dozens or hundreds of alternative approaches in use by different people around the world. Those methods are all potential innovations for you and everyone you know. The problem is that people have to go out of their way to find those alternatives and bring them back.

Not sure how to start? It’s with more questions. Useful questions for innovators include:

  • Why is it done this way?
  • Who started it and why?
  • What alternatives did they consider, and what idea did their new idea replace?
  • What are my, or my friend’s, biggest complaints with how we do this thing, and what changes might make it better?
  • How is this done in other towns, countries, cultures, or eras of time?
  • What different assumptions did they make or constraints did they have?
  • How can I apply any of the above to what I do?

Many great innovators asked better questions than everyone else, and that’s part of why they were successful. It wasn’t genius, whatever that means, special top-secret brain exercises they did every morning, or even how much money they had. It was through the dedicated pursuit of answers to simple questions that they found ideas already in the world that might be of use.

Isaac Newton asked how could the force of gravity affect apples as well as the moon? And by framing the question that way, he made observations and developed mathematics related to gravity, something no one else had done to his level of satisfaction. Many of Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions started with him asking the question: How does water flow? It was his many studies of rivers, streams, and the way water moved that led to his inventions for water-powered wheels, ways to move water in aqueducts and canals, and pumps for wells. Without asking questions and looking around, even at obvious everyday things like water and gravity, Newton’s and da Vinci’s creative talents would never have had a chance to surface.

Try Things Yourself.

Asking questions is one thing, but trying to answer them is another. There is no substitute for firsthand experience when creating things. The unique aspects of who you are, including qualities you may not like about yourself, are an asset when it comes to creative thinking. No one can see the world exactly the way that you do.

This means that if you can experience, watch, or make something yourself, you may discover lessons and make observations that other people failed to notice. Those observations are the seeds of innovation: You might see an old idea or tool in a way no one else in your family, business, or city has before, and if you follow it, an innovation might be yours.

Remember that the knowledge we have today about the universe did not come from magic books that have been sitting around waiting for us since the dawn of time. It came from curious people who not only asked questions, but followed them to places others weren’t willing to go.

Francis Crick and James Watson, the discoverers of DNA, followed hunches and made guesses to answer their questions, spending hours in labs doing things their professors thought were not only unscientific, but a giant waste of time. Even Socrates, the greatest philosopher of the Western world, was against the idea of writing things down in books. Had his pupil Plato not picked up on the innovation known as writing, and written down Socrates’s story himself, we wouldn’t know either of their names, much less the Socratic method for learning that many universities base their teachings on today.

Progress depends on people thinking independently and following their curiosity as far as they can, including doing things others around them refuse to try.

Try, Learn, and Try Again.

The last step is not to expect success the first time. If you’re doing something new for yourself or your friends, it’s hard to predict what the outcome will be. And the bigger the innovation, the more risk — and work — there is: Making innovative cookies is one thing, but changing the way people think or work is another.

Since long hours of work might be required to satisfy your curiosity, what’s important is how you respond to failure. Can you find the courage to respond not with embarrassment or regret, but with more questions: Why did this fail? What can I learn now? What will I do differently next time? If you can, like most great inventors and creators throughout history did, you’ll be well on your way.

(Note: this essay was originally published at america.gov)

By Scott Berkun, March 2008

79 Responses to “Essay #58 – How to innovate right now”

  1. Minyu Deng

    Very interesting and I like this essay. I agree with Scott Berkun’s idea that people have a common trap that “new” has to be mean something has never been seen before, including me. After reading this essay, I find that innovation is not as hard as I thought. Everyone can be an innovator if you ask better question, try and try again. Innovation can be an improvement or alternative based on the old idea, but using different techniques or approaches. For example, recently, I watched a vidoe that a chinese girl, who is not a musician , made a song only by using iphone sofewafes. There is an innovation that a new technique of doing music.

    Reply
  2. Kingston Yan

    Hi Scott,

    Great information, essay 58 has great insight on how to start becoming a innovative thinker. I have to start implementing the questions you wrote into my everyday life.

    Reply
  3. Michael Carrola

    To be honest i always thought this was true but never realized how simple it is to “innovate” or bring something new. Anything can be innovated or changed to add something new that makes doing something easier and could eventually lead to a new discovery of an entirely different thing. If someone were serious about making a change it is as simple as taking a look around and what you do day to day and thinking “in what way can I make this easier for myself” or “I wonder if others have the same problem as me?”

    -Mike

    Reply
  4. Nathan White

    hey scott,

    I couldnt agree with you more. Innovation is all about how you look at something and see if there is a better way to go about it. It IS about asking questions about inventions and just life in general. Its about trying to find a better way to do a task, job or even a better way to have fun with the environment around us.

    TRULY INSPIRATIONAL

    Thanks
    Nate White

    Reply
  5. Alex Barker

    Hello,
    I really enjoyed reading this essay. Before i read it i believed that innovation was for inventors and rich business men. I now think of innovation much differently. The example you gave about the Wright brothers watching birds for countless hours, giving them inspiration to eventually

    Reply
  6. Alex Barker

    Hello,
    I really enjoyed reading this essay. Before i read it i believed that innovation was for inventors and rich business men. I now think of innovation much differently. The example you gave about the Wright brothers watching birds for countless hours, giving them inspiration to eventually create airplanes was my favorite. I found the most interesting part of this article to be the idea that innovative ideas bring about more innovative thinking. One innovative idea can lead to many others, and there is never an end to innovation. People will continue to grow, new needs will develop, and new innovative thinkers will create ideas to fulfill the needs of people. Great essay!!!

    Reply
  7. JP

    Great article! I thought that your viewpoint of creating something new is sometimes as easy as revamping an existing idea or concept. I sometimes think that the dreadful word “new” is the first hurdle in bypassing obstacles that restrict creative thought and expression. Inspiration to start a new tomorrow. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  8. Helen Ying Liu

    I think this essay is really on point. I agree that being innovative doesn’t necessarily mean to create something entirely new, but expanding on borrowed ideas and making them more superior or different. It’s encouraging to know that anyone can have the potential to be innovative
    I completely agree with your three other points: ask question, try things yourself, try, learn, and try again.

    Reply
  9. Kin Wah Sin

    It is a good article. I love the last paragraph. We need to try all the idea first no matter is success or not. We cannot success at the first time. We need to try to make arrangement to become success. Try is the only way to do that. Innovative need to try. That is a very important step for the innovation.

    Reply
  10. Daryl Cheung

    Interesting. Surely is motivational for people like myself who could easy stand to have more practice in innovation. I will continue asking questions, be curious, and try to answer them complexly. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. jtg

    Interesting read. I like how you stated that we are all capable of being creative or innovative, as it reflects my own point of view on the subject. Also, I felt that asking yourself (and answering) several of the simple questions for innovators was not only a great way to question your routine thinking, but was also quite fun as well. I’m having a great time taking part in both sides of the dialogue that is going on inside of my head and sometimes I’m even surprised at the answers I give myself!

    Reply
  12. Anthony Hall

    Great essay Scott.

    I think when individuals think of innovation and the possibilities of themselves being an innovator, many run into fear. Fear for most is a big hurdle which can be in the form of perceiving to be uncreative, not knowing where to begin, or hinging their own ideas on the comparison to others. I think if individuals realize that fear is necessary to be creative and innovative and can be utilized to fuel their efforts, many more paths to levels of necessary creative thinking will become available.

    Reply
  13. Joseph Diala

    Yes i believe most modern innovations today are derived from some innovation of the past. For example, ancient civilizations in India where the idea of the primitive water systems were simply modified and can be seen in today’s society or even hybrid vehicles from the US further innovated by the Japanese.

    Reply
  14. Daniel Payomo

    Mr. Berkun,

    Start with questions, end with questions. “Can you find the courage to respond not with embarrassment or regret, but with more questions” – Excellent! Very insightful piece.

    Reply
  15. Lai

    I agree with scott Berkun that you do not have to be the smartest person in the world to innovate. This is very interesting because he made a good point. To innovate is to introduce something which doesn’t have to be new. It could be anything that you want to create. In order for it to become successful you have to keep trying and come up with different questions of what you want to innovate and what are the things that you want to figure out to make it possible.

    Thanks for the tip,

    Reply
  16. Cicily Chan

    Mr. Berkun
    This article has changed my mind about innovation. Before I was afraid to fail and afraid of embarrassment. “what’s important is how you respond to failure. Can you find the courage to respond not with embarrassment or regret…” It is important to have courage to get back on your feet even after you fail to improve and learn from your mistakes.

    Reply
  17. ally garcia

    i appreciate your insight on innovation for entrepreneurs. I think your perception on risk taking and precision is good insight for small business owners who are trying to build their start up. I work for EFactor, a new social network for entrepreneurs that help provide resources and this was a great article to spread to our community. This essay brings inspiration to young entrepreneurs. Thank you

    Reply
  18. Alfonso M.

    Thanks for posting this. Asking questions seems like such a simple idea, yet often it is to easy to feel awkward or shy about asking questions. But the most important part is the idea of putting what you learn into practice. GREAT INSIGHTS – thank you.

    Reply
  19. dlysen

    Innovation makes things works more efficient. It is good to try something new and learn again, then try again and apply from what we’ve learned.

    Reply
  20. solicitor

    so just copy n paste hey then police will come behind you for intellectual property infringement :P

    Reply
  21. Carlos

    Hi. Being an adept of continuous innovation I really liked this post. I don’t know why I didn’t find this blog earlier but it is great, and I will bookmark it!
    On this post I found a more down-to-earth approach than on the reflexion on my blog. If you can spare 5 minutes I really would enjoy an opinion.

    Greetings,
    Carlos

    Reply
  22. Abdul Samed

    Hi Scott:

    It’s a good article on innovation. I provided with “new” insights on innovation itself.

    Thanks
    Abdul Samed

    Reply
  23. Dhananjay Magdum

    It is very interesting.
    Actually i want to be a Best in the World by innovating a concept which will inspire many peoples.

    So Thanks.

    Reply
  24. John McFarlane

    I watched a program that discussed how ideas can be found within nature, its almost like answers are literally staring us in the face but we cant see them until we look at things differently.

    Some guy came up with an idea to do with septic tanks or something like that, a better way of doing it and if i remember correctly he got the idea from noticing how either water flows down a certain way or even from how certain things take shape in space.

    Many people have mentioned how ideas can be found and are being found by looking at nature, seeing how things work in nature then applying that to something else.

    Reply
  25. Teena

    Hi buddy, your blogs model is simple and clean and i like it. Your blog content articles are superb. Please keep them coming. Greets!!!

    Reply

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