How to Think Like an Innovator
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
Entrepreneurs are constantly looking for our edge. What new products or services can we create? How can we push the boundaries and expand into new markets?
Anyone can make incremental changes: turning a four-part training into six parts, or building a widget that’s a half-inch smaller. But how can you develop breakthrough ideas that actually change the game?
In my new book Stand Out, I discuss how entrepreneurs can borrow the techniques of innovative thinkers in a variety of different fields to inspire cutting-edge ideas. One of them is Eric Schadt, a top scientist who has been lauded as one of today’s most cited researchers; he’s written more than 200 peer-reviewed papers on everything from Alzheimer’s to diabetes. (Several years ago, I consulted for the institute where Eric works at Mt. Sinai Hospital.)
His secret sauce? He didn’t originally train as a biologist, though that’s the field where he’s now making his mark. Instead, he studied math and computer science, which enabled him to see -- long before many others -- the power that Big Data held for biology. At first, they thought he was crazy; even just a few years ago, he told me, one Ivy League professor shouted him down at a lecture and stormed out of the audience. But today, he’s making a disproportionate mark with his approach.
When you tap into different skills, experiences, or aspects of your background that others don’t share, it opens up new perspectives.
That was the case for another entrepreneur I profiled for the book. Paco Underhill trained as an urban planner, where he worked for a nonprofit, analyzing open spaces and pedestrian foot traffic. But he had an epiphany: The same insights could be applied to retail environments. In 1977, he founded Envirosell, a consulting firm specializing in consumer behavior, fueled by his unique training and point of view.
Similarly, if you’re a serious jazz musician, or grew up in a different country, or you’re significantly younger (or older) than the rest of your colleagues, you’re going to see the world in a different way. Tapping into that mindset can generate serious business results.
To develop your own breakthrough ideas, ask yourself:
- What past experiences or training do you have that others in your field don’t?
- What viewpoints or techniques are common in one realm, and how could you apply to them in your industry?
- What would practitioners from a totally disconnected field (philosophy or geology or botany or literature) say about your industry? What wouldn’t make sense to them, and why?
- What trend is most threatening to your industry right now – and what opportunities does it present?
When you only look for inspiration within your own field, it’s hard to see the full range of possibilities. Are we doing it this way because it’s the best way, or simply because it’s what we’ve always done? Mixing insights from multiple professions, or from other aspects of your life, enables you to step outside the conventions of your industry.
You can ask bigger questions and see opportunities that would never even occur to your competitors. When you think like an innovator, you’re playing a new game. It’s no longer the trench warfare of incremental improvements; it’s the ability to redefine your business and make the competition irrelevant.
Related: How to Be a Trendsetter