How to become a better innovator
I told that person to focus on two things: first, interact with everyone and every information source or idea possible. Second, become more aware of what's happening and more attentive to the information you receive.
Evidence indicates that many innovative ideas happen at the margin between two technologies, two industries or two concepts not previously mashed together. But all too often, managers and executives remain in their own silos and pigeon-holes, ignoring or worse, completely unaware of what is happening in their industry and outside of their industry. What we need to do is set aside time to intentionally understand and interact with people, and ideas, and technologies, and capabilities that are new and different from what we interact with everyday.
First, talk to people in your organization who have different jobs or support different products and services. What are the issues they are trying to solve? Next, talk to your customers. Don't simply read the research reports but find or create ways to interact, face to face, with your customers and prospects. What they have to tell you about your products and your competitors will surprise you. Next, talk to people in other industries. You can do this at trade shows, conferences and other events, or by simply asking to better understand another firm's innovation efforts as part of a "best practices" review. It also happens that a lot of information about trends and new ideas is published online and in industry journals and magazines. Yet most people, if they read at all, only read within their industry, which simply reinforces the stuff they already know.
There was a good article in the December 2009 Harvard Business Review that identified five characteristics of innovative leaders. Those characteristics included associating, questioning, networking, experimenting and observing. If you think carefully about that list, you'll see that an individual who actively seeks out new and different information and insights will 1) question the status quo 2) network to get new information and make new connections 3) associate ideas and information from other industries with his or her own needs 4) observe customers and business partners in action and 5) will be more willing to experiment with new ideas. People who are good at spotting new opportunities and generating new ideas are usually people who have plenty of inputs from a wide array of sources.
But the other point I identified is also important. The individual has to be attuned and attentive to the information and what it means. So many of us swim in a sea of information, data, nuance and suggestion, but we have very strong filters to weed out all the "unnecessary" information. Our filters are typically there to reinforce what we think and believe, not to question or change our thoughts or behaviors. Good innovators are very open minded - finding new inspiration and making connections where they seem unlikely or even impossible. But that means that the innovator has to be aware of the information that's available, shift through it to find the interesting stuff, and make connections and linkages between disparate data. Just interacting with a number of new people from a number of different industries won't increase your innovation quotient if you aren't sensitive to what's said and why it may matter to you or your business.
What's more - this is for the most part "free" - the information is out there and many people are more than willing to talk about their successes and their opportunities for growth. All this takes is a bit of your time - to get out of your silo and pigeon-hole and talk to and interact with people from different perspectives, technologies, industries or geographies. Creating the opportunities for interaction, and changing your filters to identify new information, will make you a much better innovator.
Actually, this phenomenon is why I think the TED talks are so popular. They are short, interesting presentations and stories from people in different industries doing really different things. TED is basically just a marketplace to exchange information and ideas with people you are unlikely to meet otherwise. In the case of TED talks, you can watch those without leaving the comfort of your office or home, but I hope you'll go much further.