How to (Really) be Innovative

When someone labels a new product or service innovative, it probably isn’t.

By Robert Carroll

Innovation is easily one of the buzziest terms of our age. It pops up all over the Internet, your boss uses it constantly in meetings, and it’s become a catchall for anything to do with smartphones, startups, or Silicon Valley. Writers from publications like The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and the Harvard Business Review have all called on their readers to ban the word from their lexicon because it’s grown so pervasively meaningless.

I cringe every time I see a new marketing campaign that touts its supposedly “innovative” approach to business or technology. It seems the more an organization uses the word innovate, the less it actually does innovate.

The most criminal use of the word innovation is in reference to a development that was anything but. Innovation gets used as a label for trends like ephemeral messaging or geolocation. These technologies were brilliant when they first entered the scene; now they’re lifelessly ubiquitous. The steel mill was a true innovation of its time. So was the railway. So was the personal computer. Now, they’re just part of the world we live in. “When tech is fully adopted, it disappears,” said famed venture investor Benedict Evans. So the lesson here is not to confuse innovation with recent innovations. Why? Because we’re trying to build the future, not mindlessly iterate on what we’ve already created.

It’s important to know that innovative ideas don’t always translate into successful business ventures. There seems to be a sweet spot on the bell curve where new ideas blossom. If you’re too early on the curve, you’re a crazed (but poor) genius. If you’re too late, you’ve already been beaten to the punch. Knowing where to strike requires a lot of talent (or just plain luck), and the repercussions can be tremendous. In the words of author Victor Hugo: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Innovation is fickle, but it’s not impossible to obtain. If you want the next big idea to be yours, there are a couple of important rules to always keep in mind.

The first rule is to try to live in the future. The theory of the “adjacent possible” says that good ideas rarely appear in a vacuum, but are available only to those who live adjacent to them. It’s the people who work on the bleeding edge of technology that are able to see one more step into the future. A hospital nurse, for example, probably won’t write the next computer language, but a software engineer might. Entrepreneur and venture investor Paul Graham says the best way to come up with a good idea is to “live in the future, then build what’s missing.” He continues, “The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice’.”

The second rule involves adopting a DIY approach to building your product or service. “The very best ideas almost always have to start as side projects because they’re always such outliers that your conscious mind would reject them as ideas for companies,” explained Graham. If you build things you love with maniacal passion, you’re likely to run into something that others will love too. Building for yourself shortens the feedback loop, because you understand the users better than anyone else.

It’s important not to get caught up in the innovation craze. What most people call an innovative product or service today is actually based on something that’s already passed into history. Want to know what’s next? In the words of management theorist Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Dive deep into whatever you love, and you just might find the next big idea.