The other night I was hanging out at my surf buddy Alex’s home. Alex is a mathematician who teaches computer science and researcher at U.C. Berkeley (she’s also a total ripper). I noticed a cartoon-like cut-out of her face placed on a shower background with a conference logo on it. When I asked what it meant, she explained that the running joke amongst mathematicians is that all the insight and best ideas come to them in the shower. It got me thinking for a second. So mathematicians generally get their “ah-has” in the shower. Where have I gotten mine all these years? It got me thinking a little more about innovation and insights and inspired me to share a few key lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Talk to unlikely partners
One of the innovations I worked on in my career (among a few) was an entrepreneurship education program for immigrant women. I was trying to figure out how to use technology and creative media to create greater access of the program to more women. I started the project in 2001, developed the non-tech prototype over a period of years, got pilot funding in 2007 to develop the media, and then a second round of funding in 2009. It was a LONG, creative process. At one point, we even won the innovation award from the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, the national governing body for our industry.
Hands down, talking with people that had absolutely NOTHING to do with immigrant women, entrepreneurship and non-profits often challenged and stretched my perspective throughout the innovative process and helped us look at problems differently.
We are often so deep in our own innovation and building it, that it is easy to get lost in that perspective and easy for that perspective to narrow. When you talk with people who have absolutely none of the normal assumptions you would have while developing your innovation, product or idea, out-of-the box ideas start to generate. You also open up your idea to people who think and solve problems differently.
I remember in one week talking with a marketing professional for Chiquita bananas and then a juice entrepreneur, a community college professor and two veteran engineers of HP. All had such interesting and different insights to share on our work and thought about how to approach or solve for things in different ways. This was one of the things I enjoyed most about the process - bringing together a hybrid of perspectives and coming to a new idea or insight based on these conversations.
Others see what you sometimes can’t. The richest ideas always came from this type of cross-pollination of perspectives.
2. Shift perspectives
In addition to getting outside perspectives, it is equally important to be shifting YOUR perspective and your team’s perspective all the time.
This is an exercise that is done a lot in coaching. You can be sitting and twiddling your thumbs over something, but if you move to a different part of the room, and look out the window, you will see it differently.
Back to Alex – my mathematician friend. That same night, her boyfriend hands me a piece of art that he had scribbled on a napkin. My first instinct was to twirl it around in different directions. Each angle I shifted it to, I saw something completely different on the napkin. At one angle I saw a rooster. At another angle, a face … and at another, a metropolis. But it was all the same piece of art. The same concept applies to innovation. Shifting yourself around in relation to the issue you are trying to innovate on can lead to new thinking. When you look and shift perspectives, the questions to contemplate are:
How do I add value from here?
How can I make it better?
How can I solve the problem?
Does it match what the end user is requesting?
Looking back, this is one of the biggest lessons I have learned about facilitating innovation. If you try to solve too many problems in one go, you may end up being a jack of all trades and master of none and not solve any problem well. By having a laser focus on the problem you want to solve, you are more efficient in solving the problem at hand. Focus on what’s most important first and then add the bells and whistles as you go. My intention is not to spew the same ole same ole. But from experience, all I want to say is when at all possible, simplicity is golden.
4. Trust your instincts
In my experience, instinct plays a key role in knowing which way to take your innovation. Very often, big picture thinkers have the ability to hold a lot of diverse perspectives in their heads, which allows them to see a path or trend forward, sometimes at a subconscious level. This becomes challenging for the leader, because they may be taking leaps of logic in their head, and will need help deconstructing their logic model in order to bring people along into what they see. Sometimes, there is so much advice and input that it’s hard for the leaders to access this intuition.
You take in information and then you need to trust yourself and take responsibility for directing it in a specific way. It’s almost like finding your wise, centered voice on the innovation. Many will want to give you all sorts of advice. Take some with a grain of salt. Ultimately, trust your instincts.
5. Understand that innovation is a function of time
I remember discussing this point back in college with an über smart philosophy masters student in my metaphysics class. He said to me as we were conversing on some philosophical concept: “innovation is just a function of time.” In other words, someone is bound to eventually come up with the idea you have. And very often, innovation is happening simultaneously; just because you’re thinking of an idea and it is original doesn’t mean someone else isn’t thinking of it too.
Case in point, I launched Surf Life only to realize a few months down the road that a fellow surf instructor, whom I met in Costa Rica years ago and who now resides in the Netherlands, was in the early stage of launching Beach Life Coaching, another coaching and surfing combination model for women. And she was working on a retreat to Costa Rica, too! We had no idea we were each working on such similar concepts. It didn’t surprise me that someone in a parallel universe was putting together a very similar set of things.
You have some choices here. Either accept innovation is a function of time, see what you can share and learn from the other person, believing there is enough of a need in the world for you both to serve, or you can whine like a baby and feel sorry that someone is "taking your idea" when in reality they probably just came to it on their own. (I highly recommend the former, especially if you are in the business of solving problems and making the world a better place.) Understanding innovation is just a function of time, frees your ego of the “I came up with this first” mentality and propels you to collaborate or even rethink what you are doing. The realization that me and my friend were working on similar things prompted us to connect and share our experiences and ideas, and to even think about collaborating on a future surf and coaching retreat for women.
Hope these tips have been helpful to think about. It’s important to note that this is just my perspective; I know there are other innovators out there, and let this be a post that invites other perspectives into the mix. Have you spent years innovating on a concept or idea? What did you learn? When did you come to your “ah-hah” moments? In the shower? On the loo? We’d love to hear from you! (Hey, that rhymed!)