8 Ways to Be Innovative (Even if You're Not)

9 years, 7 months ago - December 31, 2012
Can't be creative on demand? Not many people can. Fortunately, it's a skill you can improve.

Trying to be innovative is, at least for most people, nearly impossible.

Don't believe me? Try it. Right now. Think of something innovative. Come up with something new and different. I'll try it too.

Back so soon? Don't feel bad; I was back long before you.

Creativity isn't a switch most of us can turn on at will, so the key to being innovative is to view a problem from a different perspective. Necessity is the mother of innovation, so creating a little artificial necessity automatically stimulates creativity.

Here are easy ways to flip your innovation switch:

1. Imagine the worst that could happen.

What if you lose your biggest customer? What if your industry tanks? What if a major competitor enters your market?

The answers could uncover unexpected opportunities or lead to changes in your overall strategy.

2. Play the "Why?" game.

Five Whys is a standard tool in the root cause analysis toolkit; the premise is to ask "why?" at least five times to hopefully find the real reason for an error.

But you don't have to wait for a mistake. Pick a current practice or approach and ask yourself why you do it. Then keep asking why you do it. The more times you ask "why?" after each answer the more likely you are to start to see things in a new way.

3. Pretend you just ran out of money.

Solid cash flow is great, but a steady stream of revenue or a decent chunk of capital can hide opportunities to save money or optimize a process.

If you ran out of money, what would you do? Think through as many scenarios as possible and then implement the best ideas. When your back is to the wall and you feel you have no choice, you'll toss out the sacred cows and focus on what really matters--and what will really make a difference.

4. Pretend there are no rules.

Every business has unwritten and written rules, and every one of us follows self-imposed rules.

But what would you do if you weren't allowed to use current guidelines to solve a problem? What if you no longer had to ask someone--anyone--for permission? What if your partner couldn't bail you out or cover for you? What if you could change the way you train and develop employees?

Mentally break a few rules--especially if those rules are your rules.

Often a "rule" isn't a rule at all; it's just the way you've always done things.

5. Pretend you only have five minutes to solve a problem.

Speed is also the mother of innovation. Pick a problem and force yourself to make a decision within five minutes.

Imagine you only have five minutes to decide how to deal with a cash flow crunch. If you had to do something right now, what would you do?

It's easy to play out multiple scenarios and get lost in the weeds of options. Snap decisions can be the right decisions because they often cut to the heart of an issue.

6. Imagine perfection.

Say you want to improve a process. We're trained to approach improvement in terms of percentage gains: reduce costs by 3%, reduce rework by 4%, etc.

But what if your goal was perfection? If something had to be perfect, what would you need to do?

I've shared this story before but it's worth repeating. Prior to a budget cycle I didn't ask a machine operator if he had any ideas for how we could increase productivity by 3%. Instead I said, "What if you had to ensure your machine never went down unexpectedly? What would we need to do?"

He spent an hour listing every conceivable reason his equipment shut down and then we thought of ways to eliminate each reason.

Then we implemented his ideas: We changed a lot of processes, put an employee on a different lunch schedule so he could perform preventive maintenance while the line was idle, increased the usage of a number of components. We never got to perfection but within three months productivity was up 32% and the ROI on additional expense was over 800%.

7. Screw up intentionally.

Innovation experts recommend constant experimentation, but just thinking of an experiment requires a level of creativity I often can't manage.

If you're like me, pick a task or process that works well. Then intentionally screw it up and see what happens. (Pick something that doesn't cost money or impact a customer relationship, though.)

Say the first thing you do every day is check your email. Tomorrow, wait an hour and see what happens. I'll bet you notice at least one advantage to waiting: You checked in "live" a little sooner with your employees, you handled a few tasks that helped others get a jump on their day, or you just had time to be proactive instead of reacting to emails.

"Screw up," and adopt what worked.

8. Take a field trip... and borrow away.

Industry cross-fertilization rarely occurs because we typically stay in our own silos. I learned more from a trip to a food processing plant than I could implement in a year at our book manufacturing plant.

A lawyer friend bases how his firm "touches" clients on what he learned from a high-end retailer.

A heavy equipment manufacturer tours a different plant every month to improve its safety programs.

Somewhere, someone else is doing something really well. Borrow what they do. Why not? To your business, what you borrow looks a lot like innovation.


Text by Inc.

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