The 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.
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