Innovators are a bunch of super-smart scientists or supremely creative beings.
Or so we're led to believe.
The good news is that most innovation doesn't come from an archetypal innovator or from "Eureka!" moments. So let's leave the lab coats and top pockets filled with leaky pens to them.
The truth is, the harder we try to come up with an idea, the harder it becomes to find one. We get clouded by solutions, muddled by our own expectations.
So how do we, as professionals with specific roles, bring in innovative thinking, applicable to everyday working?
I call this approach "Everyday Innovation": the ability to spontaneously solve problems and generate ideas through an active and collaborative network.
It's not about coming up with game-changing ideas in isolation — it's about endlessly seeking opportunities to improve and make a difference. This can be through new products, but can also be through new or improved processes, updated tactics or just a different approach to running team meetings.
These top 5 techniques are hallmarks of Everyday Innovators.
1. Be a Conversationalist
Conversations are the most effective opportunity generator. No other technique gives you a better launchpad to innovation.
Conversations take a topic to somewhere that you couldn't manage on your own. A conversation introduces new directions through questioning, new insights, unique perspectives and random incidents that could never be created in an artificial or solitary environment.
It's a combination of two factors that facilitate opportunities: chance and experiences.
Chance is the serendipitous outcomes that arise when different topics combine. And bringing in new experiences to your topic of conversation can immediately add value.
At the very least, someone can challenge you on a precarious position. You may learn something of value. At the higher end of the scale, the conversation will combine two new elements together.
It's this connection of seemingly unrelated knowledge that creates the biggest opportunities for innovation. No piece of software can replace the human brain's ability to connect topics to improve what we know and what we do.
2. Look for Touch Points
If I had to choose just one creative thinking technique, it would be touch points. Touch points are simple to explore, yet open up more opportunities than any other technique.
A touch point is an element of interaction with an experience, item or process. It can be a login screen for internet banking, the packaging on your new phone or the music you hear in your local cafe — all touch points, and many of these will have been carefully thought through. Smart innovators understand how these can make a huge difference to your customers.
So why touch points? Well, for a start, they are everywhere. They are all the ways your customers interact with you.
But crucially for Everyday Innovators, they are also all the ways we interact with our work. Meetings, IT tools, our desks and even the journey we take to the coffee machine. And we can fine tune each one of these to improve what we do.
It's amazing how many touch points haven't been thought about at all! What a great opportunity that gives us.
Take inspiration from the many touch points that lie outside of your work: Did a customer experience make you feel important? Or did you feel satisfied with the soft thud of the door closing on your new car? Jot down how you felt, and what made you feel that way. What were these touch points? Can you apply any of these to your project?
Our own experiences show us how touch points can elicit an emotional response — and getting that right for your customer, or even your employees, will prove the difference.
3. Be Yourself
What's keeping you awake at night? Good things, bad things, it doesn't matter. By being yourself, and having honest relationships with your colleagues, you are building up empathy and crucially, trust. You become the person people come to. They are open to you approaching them. You create an environment where people can talk, and where they can be frank.
Opening up also provides fertile topics for innovation.
What are you struggling with at work? The simplest path for Everyday Innovators to create opportunities is by uncovering problems. We need to know what isn't working — and pass it on.
When I've been out of my depth on projects, I've simply had to open up, because when we're working on complex projects it's hard to know where to turn. Where are the answers? Google may have some answers, but what is the question?
We need to raise our problems in an open environment, connecting these with a wider audience. Our chances of getting help increase, as the experiences you tap into increase: more connections offer more unique ideas.
4. Don't Fear Your Stakeholders
A great technique for Everyday Innovators is to use social collaboration as a tool to break down hierarchical barriers. Don't fear stakeholders: don't go for the path of least exposure. Instead of reporting out to them, invite them in.
Bringing in stakeholders — be they external customers or important internal figures — is an activity largely avoided. I've done it: too afraid of criticism, so have plowed along head-down, churning out one-way status reports.
Yet, if we can bite the bullet and open ourselves up to their views as we go, rather than at completion, or at the end of a task, we get two fundamental elements for innovation: First, we get the chance to fail. To start again before it's too late. And secondly, we hear the input of the customer, or the stakeholder. We hear their voice, and accordingly we can plan towards their needs.
Status reports largely go one-way, and are often not even read, or not until it's too late. Conversations, however, bring in a dynamic aspect to projects.
No matter how tough it may seem, getting your stakeholders in early is better than leaving it too late ....
5. Persistency Pays
Not specifically a skill or a technique, but whatever it is, persistence is key as an Everyday Innovator. It takes time and effort. But crucially, if you put the investment in early, innovation will flow. You won't always get an answer, or engagement, or a connection initially. And that's OK. People are busy, people won't always see the 'what's in it for me?'
But if you really believe in your idea, or that half-formed idea that needs validation and further input, keep going.
This is where persistence is crucial. Personal relationships and networks will get you started. Finding opportunities to engage with others, such as common interests, will give you momentum. Success stories from these will carry you on.
The tipping point is when others start coming to you. They see you as well connected and aware of what's going on, and will want to tap into your knowledge and network. When this happens, you have the environment for Everyday Innovation to thrive.
Everyday Innovation is about being constantly receptive to seemingly unrelated knowledge, ideas and insights. Maximize your exposure to these, and then leave the rest to your brain's natural ability to problem solve.
Innovation isn't all about big ideas that pop out fully formed, it's really about having conversations to build ideas from small seeds with the express purpose of improving the work that we, and the rest of the organization, do every day.