HOW TO INNOVATE
By Ryan Allis, CEO of Hive
Let’s start by defining what innovation is. To me, innovation is the process of creating something new that makes life better. Innovation is impossible without passion. Innovators see the world differently. We see the world as it should be as opposed to seeing the world as it is. And we're entirely restless until we see that better world become real. We are the crazy ones.
Innovators end up becoming obsessed with taking the world from as it is to as it should be. They become obsessed with making the world better. Many innovators in the for-profit sector focus incessantly on bringing value to market. Others focus incessantly on the core research needed to push the human race forward. Regardless of the sectors we play in, we are all relentlessly focused on solving problems and creating a better world than the one that exists today.
Examples of Today's Innovators
I’ll share with you four quick profiles of some of my favorite contemporary innovators.
Jack Andraka was only born in 1997, but by the age of 15 he has already changed the world with his innovation. Andraka has developed a new way to detect pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages when there is a much higher likelihood of a cure. His inexpensive method, which could save countless lives, won the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
Eesha Khare is another impressive young innovator, who at the age of 18 created a tiny device that could charge a mobile phone in 20-30 seconds—a revolutionary technology she calls a “super-capacitor.” She won the 2013 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for her invention, and plans to use the prize money to pay for her tuition at Harvard and continue her work as an inventor.
Jeffrey Grossman is a professor at MIT in the field of nanotechnology and he recently showed how sheets of graphene, a one-atom-thick form of the element carbon carbon, can be used to desalinate water. This innovation could potentially provide a cost effective solution to the increasing worldwide problem of a shortage of fresh water. He also produced an amazing course called "Understanding Science for Tomorrow," which is part of The Great Courses and available online to purchase.
Robert Pera was an Apple hardware engineer who struck out on his own in 2005 with the goal of bringing affordable wireless internet access to the world's emerging markets. By the age of 34, Robert has created a public company, Ubiquiti Networks, worth nearly a billion dollars, that is bringing Internet access to developing world through Wi-max Wi-fi networks. He’s truly bringing the cloud to the world and doing an amazing service while making a lot of money at the same time.
A Five-Step Innovation Process
Let me share six keys to innovation that, regardless whether you’re in a government organization or a non-profit organization or in the private sector working as part of a business, can enable you to innovate and create something new that makes the world better.
"Art is not a gene or a specific talent. It’s an attitude, available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t, and the guts to do something about it. Steve Jobs was an artist. So were Henry Ford and Martin Luther King Jr." --Seth Godin
Too many companies focus on serving their existing customer base at the expense of investing in new technologies or business models that may serve their customers’ future needs—this is the central thesis of Clay Christensen’s seminal 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen’s advice is something all entrepreneurs should take to heart. While it’s important to focus on what he calls “sustaining innovation”—the kind of innovation that serves your existing customer base by improving and upgrading your existing product—it’s also critical to give some significant attention to what he calls “disruptive innovation.” Disruptive innovation means testing new products or services.
The results of this kind of innovation may not immediately serve your existing customers—but they hold potential for reaching new markets or serving your existing market in a future that those customers are not yet aware of. Disruptive innovation can be counterintuitive, because it involves diverting resources away from currently profitable activities toward unproven technologies or products with uncertain markets. But if you don’t do it, someone else will. It’s much better to disruptively cannibalize your own revenue stream than to have your competitors do it.
If you want to encourage innovation in your company, location matters. If you study the history of innovation, you’ll see that breakthroughs rarely happen in a vacuum. As Stephen Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation more often happens through the interactions between ideas that are able to rub up against each other in conducive, fertile environments.
“When one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”
Think about this principle as you choose a location for your business and as you create a workplace environment. Having your business located in a thriving center of innovation and interaction like Silicon Valley can make an enormous difference to its innovative potential. Bringing your team to work in an office space that allows interaction can also make a big difference, fostering greater creativity. If people are siloed, they miss the opportunity for serendipitous innovation that can occur when one person’s spark of an idea is fanned by another person’s creative thinking. Consider creating a more open office environment if you can, while respecting people’s need for focused “maker time” as well.
In addition the physical environment, make sure that the cultural environment you create is conducive to innovation. Encourage your team to think creatively. Make space for their independent ideas. A great example of this approach is Google, which encourages all its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on a project that interests them personally. Some of Google’s great products and innovations have been born out of this “20 percent time,” (or “Innovation Time Off, as it’s officially known,) including Gmail and Adsense. Johnson quotes Marissa Mayer (then VP of Search Products and User Experience at Google) as claiming that as many as 50% of Google’s products have grown out of seeds sown in this program.