So you want to be an innovator?
Innovation can mean an edge for your business, a breakthrough cure you might need someday, a significant improvement in quality of life: lots of things people need and want. The most significant innovators are frequently treated as heroes. That’s nice too.
But where do you begin? Start with these five essentials.
First: Question everything. Never stop improving.
This is not a call to “dream big dreams” (though that’s obviously essential). This is about questioning all of your presuppositions, especially the ones you don’t even realize you presuppose.
Nothing is more built into the DNA of most companies than meetings: meetings, meetings preliminary to meetings, meetings about meetings. But at PayPal, meetings were frowned upon: our COO David Sacks (since then the producer of Thank You For Smoking and the founder of Yammer) would actually walk into anything he thought looked like a meeting, listen for a few minutes, and then disband it if it wasn’t obviously productive.
We were in a race, against bigger competitors, against regulators, against time. There were more efficient ways to do almost everything than have a meeting, and Sacks knew time was the one thing we absolutely did not have to waste.
Putting a computer on every desk–as opposed to a terminal connected to a mainframe–was a radical idea once. Putting shows like House of Cards online rather than on one of the three broadcast networks or even an established cable channel sounded insane just a few years ago (in fact, when Fox debuted, the conventional wisdom was that it would inevitably fail because “no one could ever want more than three networks”). Scurvy killed thousands of sailors for centuries: rethinking their diet a bit banished that disease forever.
But citrus and scurvy uniquely illustrate the point. The Royal Navy resisted that dietary change for decades. Thousands died for no reason better than inertia.
Bureaucracies resist change. Too often, individuals do too, sometimes without even realizing it.
Question everything you’re doing. Ask why you do it, and why you do it the way you do it. There is always room for improvement.
Second: Effort counts, but focus on the desired result.
Effort is essential. And effort is required for results. Franklin Chang Diaz started work on his VASIMR engine in the mid 1970s: NASA is just beginning to test it now. All-nighters are staples of the college experience and startup culture alike.
But it’s easy to get lost in all the things you’re doing and mistake your effort for results. “Look at all the stuff I did today,” you’ll say. But how much of it got you closer to your goal?
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