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How To Innovate: 5 Tips From The Top Innovators

I was fascinated by a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article on how to innovate (an abstract is here with the option to purchase).

They researched such innovators as Apple’s Steve Jobs, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar and Meg Whitman, Intuit’s Scott Cook and Proctor & Gamble’s A.G. Lafley.

Their key finding was that innovative entrepreneurs (who are also CEOs) spend 50% more time on five “discovery activities” than do CEOs with no track record for innovation.


I fully agree with these five tips for how to innovate; and want to provide my insights on them:

Five Tips On How To Innovate

1) Question (The Status Quo)

HBR points out that Michael Dell famously created Dell with the question:

“Why do computers cost five times the cost of the sum of their parts?”

Innovators are excellent at asking questions that challenge the status quo such as:

  • Why not try it this way?
  • Why do you do things the way you do?
  • What if you tried this new thing or stopped doing some old thing?
  • What would you do if failure was not an option?

2) Observe

Innovators are strong at observing people and details.

A great example of this that I heard about 20 years ago was about Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit (Quicken, Quickbooks, TurboTax).

Scott observed his wife spending a good deal of time writing checks and decided that the laborious process of writing checks could be highly automated through a simple process through which you type in the fields of a check (using an actual graphical depiction of a check) on your computer.

Scott also used to hang out at the computer stores and follow people who bought his Quicken product outside and ask them if he could “observe” them as they install the software and get their feedback so that he could further innovate.

Steve Jobs: A Master of Observing

Another example of an innovator “observing” would be Steve Jobs’ famous visit to Xerox Labs where he observed a number of new Xerox developments such as the graphical user interface (which led to the Macintosh) and laser printing technology (which led to Apple’s Laser Printers (which were hugely popular in their time).

Jeff Bezos said something a few years back that also comes under this category of observing: he said that if you want to get ideas for new things to create then “watch the hobbyists.”

It is often the hobbyist/techie/geek person who is playing around with things that can be turned into breakthrough products.

3) Experiment (aka “Test”)

Thomas Edison famously went through 2,000 tests to find a filament for the light bulb that would be effective and examined 17,000 different plant species to come up with a new synthetic rubber.

Few of us will experiment like Edison so here’s a more recent example using perhaps the most powerful testing platform in our lifetime — the Internet:

Timothy Ferris, author of The Four Hour Work Week (one of my favorite books!) ran a test to come up with the title of his book.

He placed Adwords text ads, varied the titles, and chose the title with the highest click-thru rate.  “The 4 Hour Workweek,” which wasn’t his favorite, won.

I love Proctor & Gamble’s famous philosophy that “Our most important products are our failures.”

HBR has also pointed out that Innovators spend an above-average amount of time on overseas travel: interestingly, it was numerous trips to Italy that helped Howard Schultz think up numerous ideas for the expansion of Starbucks.

4) Network

To be able to effectively observe, question and test things, it sure helps innovators to be a good networker — afterall, if you’re keeping mostly to yourself you simply won’t have the information/knowledge/data that you could gather through others.

HBR points out that David Neeleman created the key ideas for JetBlue at networking conferences and Michael Lazaridis was inspired to found Research in Motion (creators of the Blackberry) at a conference in 1987.

And as you’re coming up with new ideas for a startup, I fully agree with entrepreneur Chris Dixon’s approach that you keep track of all of your ideas in a spreadsheet and show them to as many smart people as you can find — read his Developing New Startup Ideas posting for how he does this.

If you need help with networking, check out my networking articles.

5)  Associate (aka “Connect”)

Finally, Associating (or connecting) is a skill that allows people to make connections across seemingly unrelated ideas, questions, data, problems and opportunities This is arguably the most important skill because it’s required to connect problems or ideas in ways that haven’t been before.

Steve Jobs is known to refer to this as “connecting” – -indeed it’s Mr. Jobs who illustrates my favorite example of Associating/Connecting.

Jobs made between the demand for music on the internet (as witnessed by the explosive growth of the use of the Napster Music service on the Web) with the trend of greater storage in mobile devices (specifically, the minimization of hard drives to enable 1,000 songs to fit on a drive the size of a pack of gum).

Thus the iPod was born.

I hope this helps you innovate more in life..isn’t that what life is all about…creating and growing!?