How to Become an Innovator



“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” — Pablo Picasso

Have you heard someone saying “I hate it when…”, or “I wish it was…”, or “Why wouldn’t they…”?

This is the sweet sound of opportunity banging on your door begging you to innovate and solve a problem people would pay the big bucks for.

To start to be an innovator, you need the mindset, skillset, and toolset of an innovator.

Imagine a Better World

Innovators start by looking at how the world can be better.  They see things as they are, and then they see things how they could be.

Where others see pain, innovators see possibility.

They use their imagination to explore ideas and play with possibilities.  They are future focused, not stuck in the past.  Innovators step into the future and imagine a better world.  They imagine new ways to do things.  They imagine new experiences to create.  They imagine new products or services to be built.

They work backwards from the end in mind.

Act Like an Innovator

The best way to be an innovator is to act like one.  Fake it until you make it. 

Behave your way there.  Don’t try to think your way there.  Act like an innovator and the feelings will follow.  Don’t wait to act until you feel like an innovator, and especially don’t wait until you think you are an innovator. 

It’s the other way around.  You mind will notice that you are acting like an innovator and will follow suit.

We are very good at mirroring, mimicking, and modeling behaviors we see (and thoughts are behaviors, too.).  As humans, we have more mirror neurons than any animal on the planet.  Just don’t get in your own way.  We often limit ourselves by saying to ourselves, “I’m not an artist…or I’m not an athlete… or I’m not an innovator,” etc.

Whether you believe you are an innovator or you are not an innovator, you are right.

Put on Your Imagination Cap

If you need to, put on an imaginary hat.  Some people put on their “thinking caps.”  Put on your imagination cap. 

Imagine putting on a hat, like the Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss style.

Or, if a hat’s not for your, then imitate your favorite innovator.   Whether that’s Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas, Edison, Nikola Telsa, etc. imagine what they would do in the situation.  Simply ask yourself, “What would da Vinci do?”

The key thing to keep in mind is that great innovators are not born, they are made.  You can forge your ability to innovate by emulating behaviors, beliefs, and actions of innovators, while exploring and expanding your own unique gifts.

The Mindset of an Innovator

Your mindset affects how you approach your situations.  Your mindset is the beliefs, opinions, and motivations that underlie your worldview and how you see the world.  Your mindset affects your behavior and how you shape your world.

The mindset of an innovator is very simple:

The innovator’s mindset embraces possibility.  

The innovator’s mindset is one that explores the art of the possible.  

Example beliefs:

  • Anything is possible
  • Change is a good thing (not change for change’s sake, but change in the direction of better)
  • There is a better way, find it
  • There are no failures, only lessons (If at first you don’t succeed, try again, but change your approach)
  • Something useful over here, might be useful over there

Example motivations:

  • Create better things
  • Create better ways
  • Create better experiences
  • Create better lives
  • Advance the art and science of X

The Traits of an Innovator

Keep in mind that great innovators are made, not born.  Your job is simply to hone your skills while thinking, feeling, and behaving like an innovator.

Another way to put it is, work (or play) at expressing the traits of an innovator.

Traits are simply an expression of your actions, attitudes, and behaviors.  Attitudes are simply a reflection of your emotions, beliefs, and behaviors towards a particular event, object, person, or thing.

With that in mind, here is a sampling of some traits that support being a better innovator…

Innovators are Passionate

Think of any great innovator you know or have heard of.   Think of Bill Gates.  Think of Steve Jobs.  What’s the first trait that comes to mind?  Maybe it’s wicked smart. 

But really it’s passion.

Without passion, smart doesn’t matter.  And guess what, you can develop your smarts by learning about metacognition, learning how to learn, and adopting a growth mindset. 

Do you know Charlie Munger?  He’s Warren Buffet’s  business partner.  People thing he’s ridiculously smart.  But he says the key is that he simply has a bunch of models, more than 80, to slide and dice any problem down to size.

As Voltaire said, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”

Passion creates your tenacity and fuels your inner fire.

And where there is great inspiration, there is often great innovation.  After all, “necessity is the mother of invention”.

Innovators are Future-oriented

They don’t get stuck on the way things are.  They get inspired by the way things could be.

The future is where possibility lives.  According to Jay Heinrichs, the past is about blame, the present is about values, but the future is about solutions.  It’s the space of possibility.

Innovators master the skill of stepping into the future.  Innovators regularly step into the future.  Whether that future is a year from now, 5 years from now or a decade from now.  They imagine how things will change over time.

Innovators pay attention to trends and insights.  They see patterns, and they see patterns of possibility. 

They don’t worry about predicting the future.  They know they can create the future.

They use scenarios to play out possibilities.  They may not know what the future holds, but by playing out possibilities, they are prepared for whatever path or course, the market or the world takes. 

Innovators see things differently. 

Innovators see things differently because they are not stuck in the past.  They are not worried about how things are.  They are curious about how things could be. 

They see future scenes in their mind.  They dream up new possibilities.  They look at situations with eyes forward.  And they look with eyes wide open.  They have a wide angle lens of the world.  The world is a mash up of all things possible and yet to be created.

Innovators are Curious

Innovators never stop learning.  They want to know how things work.  They wonder what might happen if this, or that.  They wonder what might work, if they just try X. 

They wonder why things are the way they are, so they can change them towards a better outcome, even if they don’t know how yet. 

As Seth Godin might say, “They wonder around.”

Innovators are Open

They are open to new ideas.  They are open to things that are different.  They challenge their reactions to the ordinary, so they can dream up the extraordinary. 

They embrace diversity and different ways of thinking, and different ways of doing, and different ways of being.

Innovators are inclusive.  They embrace, respect, and appreciate all people and their abilities.

Innovators are Empathic

Innovators can relate because they feel.  They feel the pain.  They feel the needs.  They feel the aspirations.

Innovators have empathy for users. 

And they feel the future.  They feel the possibilities.  In this way, they can try on future possibilities for fit.  They can feel whether something is working.  They can listen to their hunches.

Their hunches are the vibes of opportunity creating that tingling sensation when you know you are on to something.

Innovators are Optimistic

Innovators look on the bright side.  They find the upside in any situation.  They surround themselves with positivity in the form of people, stories, and quotes.

They believe they can find a solution, or that they can make progress on the problem.

They reframe situations so they can be successful.

They challenge their negative thoughts.

They ask themselves, “What do I like about this?  What can I learn from this?  What can I do about this?”

They think happy thoughts.  Don’t tell yourself to think happy thoughts, that won’t work.  Instead, think of positive reframing, by asking questions.  For example, instead of stepping into a room and asking yourself, “What’s wrong this this picture?”  First ask yourself, “What’s right with this picture?”   

It’s this positivity that inspires action and momentum.

Innovators are Resilient

Innovators don’t get stuck.  They keep trying.  They keep changing.  They keep pivoting.

They don’t see failures, they see lessons.  Every “failed” attempt is another lesson in how not to do something.

They wear a thick skin.  The critics will come, but the innovators know that feedback is a gift.  They know they can take the feedback on fully, they can use what’s helpful, or they can ignore it.  They look for the helpful parts, so they can keep improving.

And they remind themselves it’s not the critic who counts.  It’s the one who keeps moving forward—putting themselves out there.

Innovators are Problem Solvers

Innovators solve problem.   They can’t just sit still while watching a world of problems go by.  They want in on the action.

They know they are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

Innovation is the solution to the world’s toughest challenges, from poverty to hunger to health to education to sustainability and more.

Innovators seek to change the world, or at least their world, in some way.

And that’s how they put dents in the universe.

Innovators are Fire Starters

Every innovation starts with the spark of an idea.  Well, usually many different sparks, until the idea catches fire.

Gathering the kindling, turning sparks into fires, and stoking fires into blazes is the true work of the innovator.

While a lot of ideas might seem like flashes of insight, it’s the toil and the trouble that leads to these brilliant bursts of insight.

As you wrestle with a problem and you turn your attention towards it you active your Reticular Activating System (RAS).  You tune into the problem and brain helps you solve it.  Your brain gets more resourceful.  Your brain likes to solve problems.  It can’t help itself. 

That’s why asking yourself questions is a great way to direct your attention.

Innovators are Intuitive

As you get good at spotting trends, and putting pieces of the puzzle together in new ways, you build your skill of intuition.

What looks like intuition is rapid pattern matching of experience.

As Gary Klein figured out in Sources of Power, intuition is simply testing ideas against rapid mental simulation based on experience.  It’s a fast way to find a fit that just might work.  That’s how fire fighters, doctors, and military specialists make rapid decisions under the gun. 

As you practice your intuition, it’s like a muscle, and you will get stronger.  You will start to see patterns faster, and solutions faster.

Over time your “ah-has” will compound into “Oh yeahs!”

Innovators are Storytellers

Innovators draw from stories.  Stories provide ideas and insights.

Insights are the building block of innovation.

We are all storytellers.  We tell ourselves stories all the time.  We tell other people stories all the time, even as simple as answering, “How was your day.”

But innovators are conscious story tellers.  They know to pay attention to the stories they tell themselves.  They avoid limiting stories.  They transform their stories into stories of possibility.

And innovators use stories to inspire.  To inspire ideas.  To inspire others.  And to share ideas.

They know that to sell an idea that have to be able to share it in a captivating way. 

Innovators practice learning and telling stories by focusing on the challenge, the change, and the impact.  It’s a simple frame to look at any story and to hone in on the important parts.  The challenge is what makes it relevant.  The change is what makes it interesting.  It’s where the ideas and insights live.  And the impact tells if it’s worth it, and in what ways.

Innovators are Game Changers

As Peter Fisk puts it, game changers don’t just play the game well, they change the game.

As Tony Robbins would say, “If you set the rules, you win the game.”

Innovators shift power.  And, innovators change the game so they can win.  They are disrupters.  They focus on constructive disruption.

Innovators now that they need to disrupt or be disrupted.

And that’s the new normal.

Innovators are Value Hackers

Innovators find ways to create and capture new value.  They move the where, why, and how value gets created and destroyed. 

Innovators know that the value is in the change.  They create change so they can capture new value.

If there’s no value, then ideas are just science projects.

Innovators learn how to map ideas to benefits.  They learn how to break value down into specific benefit categories, such as reducing time, reducing cost, improving quality, reducing risk, improving net opportunities, etc.

Testing ideas with users helps you build your empathy and develop your awareness around value.

A great way to think about value is in terms of, “What would users pay you for?”  It separates the “nice to have” from the “must have”.  It helps you learn exactly what do people value the most.

Innovators are Entrepreneurs

Innovators bring ideas to market.  Innovators want to feel the impact of their ideas.

That’s where entrepreneurship comes in.

Peter Drucker noted that the purpose of a business is to create a customer.  He also noted that there are only two basic functions in a business:  marketing and innovation.

You can think of the market as an exchange of value.  Users vote with their attention or their energy or their dollars.  Innovators take an entrepreneurial approach and test their ideas with users to learn what sticks.

Entrepreneurs think in systems and entrepreneurs like to be a part of something bigger than themselves.  Entrepreneurship is how you go from incubating an idea to scaling it.  Your ability to make sense of the market and to be what’s next is key to the success of your innovation.

It’s entrepreneurship that helps answer the question, “What will your future customers pay you for?”

Innovators are Doers

Edward de Bono, famous for Six Thinking Hats, said that people could be put into one of two buckets:  describers or doers.  He said that describers are happy enough to just full describe something. 

They can talk about it, and they are done.  But doers are not satisfied with just describing something in detail.  They need to take action.  Doers need to do.

Innovators take massive action.  You might be familiar with how many failed attempts Thomas Edison made until he made his light bulb work.  And you might know about Benjamin Franklin and his work ethic (he was a work horse.)

And, if you know anything about Bill Gates and his relentless pursuit of solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.

Then you know that innovators are doers, not just describers.

Hate the Problem of Love the Customer

Problems, along with bold ambitions, are truly the genesis of innovation in disguise.  Unmask those creative opportunities.

So many great changes in this world come from either hating the problem or loving the customer (or both.)

So many great innovations happen when users scratch their own itches.  But the great innovators learn how to translate that scratch into terms that other people can relate to and buy into.

If you think about your own itches, that’s a powerful way to practice learning how to scratch smarter.

It’s a great way to test-drive your ability to innovate.

Dream Big, Start Small

The way to become an innovator is to dream big, but start small.  You know the expression, think globally, act locally.  It applies to innovation.  It’s OK to dream big.  In fact, you must practice how to dream big, so even your small ideas have a fighting chance.

As Bruce Lee might say, “Aim past your target.”

This is also similar to how Peter Drucker managed business.  He would first figure out what *should* be done.  Then he would figure out, what *could* be done.  He said if he just started with what could be done, then he would never know what good is supposed to look like.

So dream big, Disney style. 

Then chunk up those big dreams into smaller goals that you can hack at.  Reframe your problems into challenges worth solving.    Focus on progress, not perfection.  Your progress sets the stage and gives way for breakthroughs.

The surprise is that what might seem like incremental gains, will be a firm foundation for revolutionary innovation.

3 Simple Ways to Start to Be an Innovator

Practice makes progress, and progress is the essence of professional development.

To progress your innovation skills, you need a few practice routines that combine functional innovation muscles at their finest. 

You could sit at your desk and try to dream up ideas, and that’s cute.   But here is a set of proven practices that are far more capable of turning information into insight, and insight into ideas, and ideas into fodder for creative ventures.

Remember, anybody can be an innovator.  As Walt Disney said, “I believe in being an innovator.”  And Picasso reminded us that every kid’s an artist until they grow up.  Remember what it’s like to use your imagination to explore possibilities. 

It’s already in you.

Now here is how to bring it out and practice your imagination in an entrepreneurial way…

Imagine If…

This is an incredibly powerful way to practice your innovator’s mindset and to create and explore new ideas.

You can start by simply using the phrase, “imagine if…”

For example, imagine if anybody driving by could be a taxi, instead of just a taxi company.  That was the spark for Uber.  

Imagine if you were a influential and creative innovator.  Imagine if you came up with a new idea that helped you company leap frog in the market.

Cross-Pollinate Ideas

A simple way to be an innovator, is to start cross-pollinating ideas.  Ask yourself, how can an idea in one place, change the game in another.

For example, Uber is the idea of crowdsourcing or crowd-sharing for rides.  But it does a few things.  It creates a market by matching supply with demand.  An extension was to use Uber for food delivery.  Where else can you apply it?

Yelp is an example of consumer reviews out in the open.  Where else can you apply it?  What would Yelp for lawyers or doctors look like?

Learn what’s new in different industries.  Then ask yourself, how can you apply those ideas to other industries.

Carry an Idea Book Around

This is a very pragmatic way to get ideas flowing through your mind.

Simply carry around a notebook or a sticky pad and write your ideas down.  Don’t let them fester in your head.  A few ideas can actually take up a lot of room in your head, but you won’t know this unless you write them down.

When I first started to write ideas down, I wrote one idea down per sticky note.  At the end of the first week, I had a handful.  But by the end of the second week, I was filling up the full sticky pad, then by the third week going through multiple sticky pads.

As you free up your mind, you make space to think.  You make space to be creative.  You clear the way for creative cacophonies of your thoughts, your experiences, your pains, your needs, and your desired outcomes.

And that’s where innovation comes to life.

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