Mindset Challenge: How to Think Innovatively

The people who succeed in business (and life) are the ones who know how to think innovatively.
They aren’t just limited by what already exists, but instead think creatively and build new things. They’re the business builders, the parents of new creative styles, the department heads of new divisions within companies. They’re trailblazers and problem solvers and inventors — if not of tangible things, then of ideas and solutions.

Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again. – Steve Jobs

People who only rise to average heights in their careers are the ones who do the same things everyone else has done, never more. They’re the ones who play by rules and systems built by other people without ever writing their own.
People who grow and thrive in their careers have developed an extra x-factor. They don’t just think about how things are already done, but how things might be done. They’ve learned to see not only what already exists, but what might be.
If we were talking in terms of superpowers, we might call this “looking into the future.” Or at least — what could possibly be the future, if we wanted to take action on it and see if it worked.
There’s a great quote by Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering that sums this up: “The main difference between those who go far and those who do not is some people have a vision and the others do not and therefore can only react to the current events as they happen … No vision, not much of a future”
Become a person who has a vision, and a person who can come up with great career ideas. This is one of the greatest secrets of career development — and of success in general. Think of it as a rule: the people who achieve the greatest success in life are the ones who create new things, instead of merely maintaining the things that already exist.

At a startup, everyone’s creating

The above rule is especially applicable in the startup world. Startups are in the middle of the process of being created. Systems, processes, standards — they’re all being made up, tested via trial and error, and then improved based on challenges or demands.
“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.” — a common expression, but an even more common expression in the startup space.
Here’s the thing: every company was built by mere humans. Every system your manager teaches you was built by a person. It isn’t necessarily the best system possible, just because someone thought of it first. In fact, it probably isn’t. As you start to learn how to think innovatively, you may come up with something better — and that new idea may push the company to grow, and it will push you to grow along with it.
That’s how both business growth and career growth works.
In a startup, you’re even closer to the action, because new systems and structures and products are being built all the time. The people who create new things in businesses are the ones that drive it forward. If you’re working at a startup — or want to be successful in business, or art, or anything else — creative thinking is one of the most powerful skills to hone.

Learning how to think innovatively opens up new opportunities

Sometimes those opportunities exist in your current role. Praxis alum Nick Rundlett did this at his business partner Reliant Technology. He started working as an SDR, but he didn’t like the existing sales script, so he re-wrote it — and ended up outperforming the next two sales reps on his team combined. His growth set him up for promotions and opportunities — including taking over his old sales team. And it all started by trying something that had never existed before.
Sometimes people grow into roles that never existed before, and have to figure things out as they go — like Emily Cozzens did at PandaDoc, when she broke into the marketing department by building a customer referral program, something PandaDoc had never tried before. She wasn’t just building the plane as she was flying it, she was inventing it — which takes a lot of creative thinking to pull off.

Learning how to think innovatively: an exercise

Live on this week’s Praxis workshop, we broke down the process of learning how to think innovatively.
We started with this Tweet, from SafeGraph’s founder and CEO Auren Hoffman. Without knowing the context for the tweet, I imagine it was written while on the road — likely a list of ideas jotted down while staying at a hotel, exploring ideas that would make the service better.

While this tweet isn’t directly related to anything Hoffman does in his work, it’s a powerful exercise. It forces us to look not just at what exists, but at what could exist.
And even more importantly, it forces us to look at things that could exist that solve real problems. At the end of the day, that’s the root of all innovative thinking. This thing in my life has a problem, or is providing me with a service sub-optimally. What would make it better?

Here’s the exercise:

Choose a product or a service that you actively use — something you feel familiar with to a point that you’re comfortable thinking about features that would make it better.
Live on the call, participants chose a number of things: anything from Chipotle and Starbucks to the productivity software Asana.
Once you’ve chosen your product, just like Hoffman did, make a list of four things that would make that product better.

The rules:

  1. Your suggestions must be based on real pain points or deficits
  2. You must be able to make a case for why this suggestion would make it better (don’t just suggest bells and whistles for the sake of putting the item on the list. Why does it enhance your user experience or the product’s effectiveness?)

If you complete this exercise, share it on Twitter and tag me in your thread (@hannahfrankman). I want to see your list of ideas!