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How To Innovate (20+ Innovation Techniques)

        posted by , June 01, 2013

What's Innovation?

Innovation is the development of something new that's valuable. Innovations can be ideas, styles, methods, techniques, processes, services or products.


Why Is Innovation So Important?

Innovation is considered key to competitive advantage.

Markets, technology, regulations, products, customer expectations and competitive pressures change quickly. In order for firms and individuals to compete — they need to continually reinvent themselves.

Today's groundbreaking product is tomorrow's commodity.


Problem Solving vs. Idea Driven Innovation

Innovation has two directions. Either you start with a problem and find a solution or start with an idea and match it to problems.

  1. Problem Solving starts the innovative process with a problem. This is where most successful innovations begin. Choose the right problem and you can pretty much guarantee that a solution will have value.

  2. Idea Driven Innovation starts with ideas. For example, ideas may be brainstormed. New ideas are then matched to problems to find value.


How to Innovate

If there wasn't going to be a tomorrow. If you needed to find a solution to a problem right now — how would you innovate?

Innovation isn't easy. It's an elusive ability. You probably have good ideas all the time but there's something about that combination of new and valuable that's difficult to achieve.

Some people seem to innovate effortlessly for a time and then suddenly lose the knack. Others try to innovate for decade after decade without many results.

If you're stuck this might help. It's a collection of known techniques for innovation.

  • Define The Problem. The way you define a problem can help you solve it. Carefully detail exactly what you're trying to solve. State the problem in different ways.

  • Develop Conceptual Metaphors. Develop metaphors for complex ideas with simple everyday concepts.

    Example of A Conceptual Metaphor

    Einstein used metaphors to model physics concepts with situations from everyday life. He referred to these metaphors as thought experiments.

    Each day, Einstein traveled to his job at the Swiss patent office by a streetcar that passes Bern's famous clock tower.

    One day he pondered a metaphor for time and space — what if the street car were to travel at the speed of light, what would he see if he looked back at the clock?

    He quickly realized that the clock would appear to be stopped from the streetcar because light couldn't catch the streetcar. The faster you move, the more time slows down.

    This insight helped Einstein to develop the Theory of Relativity that dramatically transformed our understanding of the universe.


  • Research. No innovation happens in a vacuum. Learn everything there is to know about the problem space.

  • Take a Walk (Idea Incubation). Over-focus on a problem can blind you. Innovation is often described as a "flash of genius" that may come when you take a break.

  • Fail Fast. Keep your innovation lean with quick cycles of idea generation, assessment and commercialization. Drop ideas with little value before they become big investments.

  • Prototype. Build quick prototypes to determine if your ideas have value.

  • Try Paper Prototyping & Cardboard Engineering. Impose constraints on your prototypes to keep them simple (e.g. prototypes made of paper or cardboard).

  • Play. A sense of playfulness is known to produce creative ideas.

  • Combine Two Things. A large number of commercially successful innovations have been combinations of existing things (the wheel + the internal combustion engine = the car).

  • Subtract. Remove excessive or annoying features from something. Removing things may have unexpected benefits.

  • Simplify. Make a complex product, component or process simple (e.g. one click purchases).

  • Find a New Use for Something. Someone develops a new lightweight composite material for aircraft, what are the implications for other products?

  • Follow Your Intuition. Innovation is often described as a "jump forward" that goes beyond logical thought. Intuition allows you to think beyond logical steps.

  • Put On Thinking Hats. Thinking Hats is a group innovation technique. Have 5 or 6 people brainstorm solutions to a problem. Each person is assigned a thinking hat that represents a point of view. For example, a thinking hat can be optimistic, pessimistic, emotional, logical, cheap, big spender, conservative or risk taking.

  • Impose Constraints. Impose constraints on solutions to a problem. Constraints can be desired features or random constraints designed to produce interesting results. If you're designing an aircraft, impose the constraint that it can't have two wings just to see where ideas go.

  • Recognize Blessings in Disguise. Find value in problems (e.g. recycling garbage).

  • Re-sequence Steps. Re-sequence the steps of a process (e.g. manufacture the car after the customer buys it).

  • Add Steps. Add steps to a process (e.g. add customization steps to a car manufacturing process).

  • Universal Solutions. Take something proprietary and make it universal (e.g. a universal mobile device charger).

  • Improve Quality. Quality is the value of a service, product or process. Many groundbreaking innovations were essentially quality improvements (e.g. a chain of coffee shops greatly improves its customer experience).

  • Reduce a Risk. Reduce the risks of something (e.g. bungee jumping made it somewhat safer to jump off a cliff).

  • Long Tail: Shift a task from large organizations to individuals (e.g. open source software development).

  • Self Service. Make something self service (e.g. checkout at a supermarket).

  • Automate. Automate a human task or activity.

  • De-automate. Remove automation (e.g. handcrafted items).

  • Improve Experience. Innovation extends beyond products and processes. Innovate the experience of something.

  • Decompose Something. Take a component from one thing to use in another thing.

  • Design Russian Dolls. Design something to have composite parts.

  • Improve Aesthetics. Change the look and feel of something to make it more aesthetically pleasing.

  • Divergent Thinking. Think of as many ideas as possible that might solve a problem. Let ideas go in any direction.

  • Recognize Applications. Innovation isn't always obvious. Alexander Fleming invented Penicillin after noticing a strange fungus growing on a dirty workstation. It wiped out his bacteria cultures. The innovative step Fleming took was to recognize an application. By some estimates, Penicillin has saved 80 million lives.

  • Apply Counterfactual Thinking. Drop what you know about the world to think "what if ...".


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