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. rebekah price

    hi scott!

    interesting that you access information just as you need it! essay 58 has gifted me with insight and encouragement and so, thanks!

    i especially found your thoughts on filtering other people’s information, asking questions and having the courage to add something uniquely you to the mix – superb.

    bravo sir! salute.

    bek

    Reply
  2. Gordon Graham

    Makes me think about how arrogant it is for people to claim ownership of an idea. All ideas are a function of, what I call, Historical Inputs (standing on the shoulders of giants etc.) and Horizontal Inputs (influences from anybody and anything). I would like to thank my Primary 2 (Grade 2) teacher for helping me understand how this innovation thing works!

    Reply
  3. arkadipta

    thanks very much for such a message

    Reply
  4. EezeeRator

    This post is my favorite. 90% I have personally experienced.
    The 10% missing concerns primary instinct that journalists have (because of lack of research on a subject) to pick a PR and then have readers to think that this innovation is surely going to change their lives ;).

    Reply
  5. Kim

    Your america.gov link is broken. Leads to nowhere.

    Reply
    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Kim – link is fixed now, it points to the only version of the original essay I could find, which also has the same broken old link at the bottom.

      Reply
  6. Julie Angelos

    Hey Scott,

    I’m an English teacher living in Italy. I came across your site when I read CNN’s list of top blogs recommended to me by Ma.tt from wordpress. I’m a newbie blogger although I’ve been writing since I was five. Ok, six.

    The reason I’m writing is to say that I think you are an excellent writer and communicator. I’ve really enjoyed the last hour or two I’ve spent on your blog. I’ve even added you to my blog role.

    Since I”m a newbie blogger, I was wondering if you had any advice you could give me on making my blog successful. I’m happy with it. I know it needs better graphics as the one I threw on was thrown together in less than four minutes. I’m a busy person.

    Matt suggested adding a subscribe by email button but I don’t even check my email, so it seemed pointless.

    Have a great holiday season.

    My best to you and yours,

    Julie Angelos

    Reply
  7. Paul King

    Great article.

    Like you say, getting out there and just trying things is the best way to start innovating. Don’t be scared ( a good North East saying is shy bairns get nowt ) People who make lots of money are often the ones who break off the beaten track and tackle the world at a million miles an hour. And if your idea turns out to be stupid then there is always the next one! Paul http://1daylater.com – Activity tracking for freelancers

    Reply
  8. Wisepreneur

    Scott,

    I agree with your assertion that innovating is easy. The more difficult part is making the innovation matter. People come up with ideas all the time, some good, some not. But even the good ones are worthless unless they are put into use. I advocate that we need entrepreneurs to make the innovations available to others.

    Reply
  9. Pk

    Found this blog from ‘top 50 productivity blogs’ link somewhere in google. I believe it has to start with thinking about how to do it and actually doing it before asking questions. Asking questions sometimes pollutes the mind with an idea and the mind draws a circle around the idea. So my idea is to start thinking first, finalize on the idea and then see what others are doing…

    Reply
  10. ABEER

    What a nice essay I have ever read about innovation. You success to motivate me to start think about creating something new. Really nice. Thanks alot.

    Reply
  11. gregory Martin

    This piece of work has come to me at the most imperative time in my working career. Innovation, I now firmly believe, is the key to success. Not only can it be used to create something totally new in terms of creating new worlds or having a heavy impact on a civilization, but it can also mean that for those who choose to be innovative in the working place can open one door after another of opportunity.
    Just yesterday I gave my district manager the standard two week notice that I wished to depart the company and begin focusing on my own writing career. The reasons for my resignation are many, but my family and friends frowned on the idea given the “economic crisis” we are currently going through. When my short conversation with my district manger was over, I couldn’t help but feel as though a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders. I would now have the time and motivation to begin my journey into the wonderful world of writing, meet new people, and travel to inspiring places. For about a day the idea of it seemed perfect; despite my awkward social skills and fear of venturing out of my safety zone.
    After reading the innovation essay here, I thought heavily about how innovation could be applied in the workplace and be used to my advantage. I could step up to the plate and see to it myself that changes were made, even if others took it as me being a complete jerk. I could take my manager to the side and have a talk with him about his attitude problem instead of him having a talk with me about mine. Just because he is the leader, it doesn’t mean he should overlook how his bad vibes are rubbing off on others.
    Once he and I see eye to eye, I could bring up the lack of disciplinary measures taken by him in the mailroom/copy center where I work. No more lateness that goes without punishment. No more loud, personal, and vulgar phone conversations in the entrance way to the mailroom where the clients can hear. There could be a better distribution of the workload by the manager and not the workers to eliminate any unwanted tension between them. Acknowledgment of how situations are handled whether in a positive or negative way could even help others to be innovative.
    So now I find myself at a crossroad. Do I get rid of my resignation and attempt to bring new ideas and more team commitment to the workplace or do I leave it behind and implement the innovation concept in the pursuit of my writing career while I am unemployed?
    I truly am sorry for the rant here, but this essay is so timely and it spoke to me as a writer and a soon to be former employee of a company. Before the week is over a choice will have to be made, but I am young. I cannot say that I am an experienced writer seeing that I do not currently hold any certificates or awards for my diverse writing talent, but if I stay employed now I may never know what greatness I could have achieved. All I have now is a choice.

    Reply
  12. Manjunath

    Thought provoking article. To invent something, one should not be afraid of failures. Failures are stepping stone and learning process. Keep trying is the important step in innovation.

    Observation, open mind and curiousness the key. Child like curiosity can show adults a new world. The possibilities are endless and unlimited. All are gifted with creative imagination. However, one should actively and consciously utilize the power within.

    Reply
  13. RalfLippold

    Hi Scott!

    This is really a great piece of of writing and opening ground for digging deeper into what makes innovation happen in daily (business) life.

    Reminds me strongly of the 5-Whys that is immanent in Lean – which is one of my passions!

    Best, Ralf

    PS.: Creating the future instead of fixing the past :-)

    Reply
  14. Asif

    That is 100 % true that a person who asks himself questions and then try to find answers himself ultimately fin ways to innovate things. But constantly trying to find answers is not an easy thing. A solid determination is required.

    Reply
  15. Tamar Hanoun

    Hey Scott,
    I thought your ideas on how inventions aren’t really NEW to the world, but moreover are recycled and revamped ideas that others had that weren’t successful, for whatever reason.

    Also, its super cool that you have this idea of thinking out of your own little bubble on how everything is done “right”. If people were more open-minded to trying newer, and possibly more efficient ways to do things, I’m guessing the world would probably be a better place.

    Mind-provoking stuff, loved it! Keep it up.

    Reply
  16. QIAN WANG

    First, I have to say that I really like this article. It is very encouraging. Scott defines innovation in a new way from a broader perspective. Many of us believe that we are not the genius innovator because it is so hard to create something new which has never existed. I never thought about that applying old ideas into new ways can be considered to be innovated. I do agree with you that innovators need to be curious and brave. Without curiosity, people will never go deeper to figure out “why” and later exam their own ideas. Coming up ideas might be easy and proving their ideas can be difficult. Innovators are required to be open-minded and accept opinions from various perspectives and then the ideas need to be tested for multiple times. The process is like using scientific method doing experiments. A hypothesis can not be proved “true” unless repetitive experiments have the same conclusion. If the conclusion is not expected, innovators need to learn from the process and figure out what goes wrong.

    Reply
  17. Darryl San Buenaventura

    Nice article. I am currently an Entrepreneur Major at San Francisco State University. I like that you emphasized how the greatest innovators borrowed and reused ideas from the past.

    Thanks for the inspiration,

    -Darryl

    Reply
  18. Tai

    hey there Scott~!
    I just want to thank you for sharing such a beautiful
    and valuable knowledge.
    3 simple steps to become an innovator very impressive.
    I thought asking question part was awesome, because when my work fails I get discouraged and embarrassed rather than asking the question how I could improve.
    Now I know its a process and don’t need to be ashamed of myself when I fail. ^^ thank you~

    Reply
  19. Jade Jardstrom

    Even though I do feel like there’s nothing ‘original’ anymore, that all things have been thought of already, it’s true that we can get something new from rehashing old ideas together.

    Reply
  20. Kevin Dultz

    I totally agree that it doesn’t take a creative genius to be innovative. I think the greatest factor for being innovative is having belief in yourself. No matter how many people doubt you, you can’t be one of them. Its not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up. Another good point is being able to decipher what you did wrong. Then being able to figure out what it is that you need to improve on.

    Reply
  21. Cuong Nguyen

    Hey Scott,

    You made me realize a lot about how innovation can occur. It doesn’t necessary mean something new but our way of improving or bringing something more to the table. By working on something that was available in the past, our ability to make it something more is what innovation is about. What I really took form your article is how you respond to failure; you can leave it as that or actually take it upon yourself to learn from it. I believe that is one of the most important things in life.

    Thanks for the tips and advice!

    -Cuong

    Reply
  22. Diego Corona

    Very nice essay Mr.Berkun. I like the how you said that we got to step out there and just starting things is the best way to start your innovation mind going.I also like the fact that you said we don’t have to be a genius in order to be creative. An ordinary Joe has that ability also. They just have to challenge themselves in a way for example like you said asking yourself questions and answering them(thinking outside the box and thinking of new creative ways to do things that we have done the same way over and over again).

    Reply
  23. Le Dich

    Great article, especially on the fact that “The common trap about newness is the assumption that new means something the universe has never seen before.” Everything “new” is pretty much borrowed from the old and altered. Your advice that asking questions as a tool to overcome problems is an excellent point. I agree that questions should be asked and more questions should be asked until one has the answers.

    Reply
  24. AlexeiS

    This is an interesting essay. Truth be told un-till now, I was one of those people that thought that by creating new it had to be something no one had ever created or thought of. I also like the idea of “Try, Learn, and Try Again,” which I have heard twice now.

    Reply
  25. Steve R

    Scott Berkun’s essay about innovation basically reiterates what most of us have been doing. The only problem? We’re not doing anything about it.

    Reply
  26. Yuri Yan

    Hi Mr. Berkun,

    I really enjoyed reading this essay but to make a comment on what you wrote about the past where Thomas Edison created the concept of powered light. I do believe Edison is an innovator because even though he might have used other people’s ideas and called it his own, he just re-invented something that made it 10x better for everyone. I mean do you honestly think we should use wax, wood and oil for light right now? That be silly. And I actually never heard of Joseph Swan before. I guess Edison must have done something more unique than Swan did. I am not quite familiar with the history.

    Overall, I do think this is a very inspiration piece of work. I like how you shared your ideas and convinced people that everyone can be innovators, just the matter of time and commitment you put up with. You wrote “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. ” Time and Effort tells all.

    and yes, ASK QUESTIONS(theres never any right or wrong questions)!

    -Yuri

    Reply
  27. Ryan Delaney

    I definitely agree with you, Scott, in the way you break down the simplicity of innovation and creativity. It really isn’t that complex of a subject, but society has always pounded in our brains that creative people are the select elite.

    Reply
  28. Erika Chan

    Scott,

    I really like your article and how it talks about how everybody and anybody can be creative. I especially like how you encourage people to try things that they may fail at but to look at it as a learning experience. I agree that failing is a great way to learn.

    Reply
  29. JiaMin Huang

    Scott,
    Thanks for sharing a such awesome essay. I learned a lot from it, especially the concept of “new”.

    Reply
  30. William

    Pretty interesting point that in order to come up with innovative ideas you have to ask questions. Even if you fail you can still ask yourself why was it that you failed and then face the problem from a new perspective.

    Reply
  31. alice lioi kuang

    I really like your article, it’s very interesting and easy to understand. Your article encourage people to learn from failures and inspire people to try new things over and over. I also believe we should try many times to invent new things and learn from the mistakes in order to be more successful in the future.Moreover, I think many people are so embarrass to show their ideas , but innovation needs new ideas and different points of views.

    Reply
  32. John G.

    This article made me think of how we always tend to block ourselves by not understanding the definition of innovation. Coming up with something new doesn’t have to change the world. It just has to maybe solve an already existing problem with a different approach.
    Quite motivational.

    Reply
  33. David Asem

    Hi Scott.
    Interesting and thought provoking essay about innovation.
    I found your ideas to be right. When I focus on writing an innovative essay or build a superb website or code for a client; I ask myself good questions and answer them precisely to do do my job well. If I fail, I try again. Its a trial and error process until I feel right about it.
    I really liked your essay.

    Reply
  34. danielle johnson

    I thought this article takes away the idea of the one genius. Its not just one person that creates everything. It is one person that borrows ideas from another to creater something new.

    Reply
  35. Kam H. Law

    Dear Scott,
    Thank you for posting this article. I like it a lot.
    It keeps me coming back to read it again and again. And I feel like I have learn more everytime when I read it.
    Thanks,
    Kam

    Reply
  36. Steve Y

    This essay is very interesting and it provided me with some new ways to the process of innovation. Thanks for the advice!

    Reply
  37. Tejas

    yeah, there are great people in this world. They think, imagine,

    explore, innovate & inspire. Mark Zukerberg, Larry Page and many
    more are there…!

    they do this all at the early ages of their life.

    Reply
  38. cedric johnson

    Great stuff Scott. One of the best books I read recently was “The Innovator’s Way” by Peter Denning and Robert Dunham who like you, indicate that innovation is something that can be learned.

    Great to have found your blog,

    Cedric

    cedricj.wordpress.com

    Reply
  39. Meijun Deng

    It is such a great article that tells us how to innovate. I strong agree that we may face failure If want to create something new successfully. Therefore, we have to persist in doing it. We have to lean from failure to see what we should improve next time.

    Reply
  40. Miguel Garcia

    Scott,

    Very interesting article, it shows how innovation is truly simplistic by just asking everyday questions. Figuring out how things work and why is the key to making them better or even coming up with something new. Innovation is no longer for the select few. Thank you.

    -Miguel Garcia

    Reply
  41. Nikole Del Rosario

    I found this article to be very interesting and I love that it can enlighten readers with 3 easy tools for an “innovator.” I think many people have a certain idea of what innovation and creativity mean and that it is attainable only by a certain “type of person;” like being innovated picks a chosen few. However, in reality Scott’s tool kit of becoming more innovated is interesting because I think it reveals the simplicity that many people have not realized or maybe have just overlooked. I think its important people realize that everyone has the ability to become more innovative and that it is essential in the society we live in. If we did not have innovation…where would we be?

    Reply

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