When you read about highly successful innovators—the likes of Steve Jobs, Marissa Mayer, or Elon Musk—it’s easy to think that they just have something that the rest of us don’t. How can they possibly keep coming up with such great ideas that change businesses, industries, and possibly even the world? The answer is, they practice.“It’s tempting to think of innovation as a rare skill belonging to a specific class of people—the visionaries, the creatives, the rule-breakers,” writes Neil Blumenthal, founder of one of the most innovative companies of 2015, Warby Parker. “But actually, it’s a muscle that we’re all naturally equipped with. We just need to get in the habit of using it.” Luckily for the rest of us, the smart tactics these visionaries use for keeping their brains sharp and thinking differently can help improve our innovation quotient as well. We did some digging to find out exactly how some of the world’s most successful innovators do what they do. It might be just the spark you need to think of your next big idea today.
DON’T DISCOUNT THEIR CRAZY IDEAS
If you’re anything like me, when you were a kid you were just brimmingwith ideas—often quite ridiculous ones—that you truly believed you could make happen. There were no thoughts of limitations based on age, experience level, how the world operates, or anything else. But as adults, many of us too quickly shoot down our ideas. It’ll never work. I don’t know how to do that. That’ll take way too long. The thing is, those “crazy” ideas are where most of the world’s most successful innovations come from. And the people who succeed in realizing these revolutionary advancements do so because they let themselves believe that a crazy idea could be a reality. Take Musk, who is now running one of the world’s most successful electric car companies (Tesla) and most innovative aerospace manufacturing companies (SpaceX). During an interview in 2014, he admitted, “I thought both Tesla and SpaceX would fail at the beginning.” Yet he believed in them, so he went for them, throwing much of his money and time into these “crazy” ventures. Stop discounting ideas that excite you but seem a little nuts. Jennifer Hsieh, the VP of Insight, Strategy, and Innovation at Marriott International, shares, “[Tom Kelley and] David Kelley’s book Creative Confidence talks about how most of us are born creative, and, with practice, we can rediscover the ability to generate novel ideas and the courage to test them out.” Now onto that courage…
GET COMFORTABLE WITH FEAR
A lot of people believe that, in order to be a leader in innovation, you have to be fearless.
In fact, quite the opposite is often true. “I wouldn’t say I’m fearless. In fact, I feel fear quite strongly. But if what I’m doing is important enough then I just override the fear,” shares Musk.
In her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, prolific author Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize that distinction…we have to be careful how we handle our fear—because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.”
In other words, successful innovators let their fear exist, but just don’t let it dictate their decision-making. They let themselves feel it, but they keep on going anyway. Because maybe, if you’re feeling afraid, you just might be getting close to something really good.
LEARN ABOUT ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING
This philosophy shone through in Jobs’ revolutionary work. As CEO and biographer Walter Isaacson writes in HBR: “He connected the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology, arts to engineering. There were greater technologists (Wozniak, Gates), and certainly better designers and artists. But no one else in our era could better firewire together poetry and processors in a way that jolted innovation.” In order to make these connections, though, Jobs had to know about things—a lot of things. That’s why the best innovators are also some of the biggest learners, and not just about fields directly related to their work. They follow passions and interests that might not make sense. They dive into topic areas they know nothing about. “I’m a voracious ‘scanner,’” shares Hsieh. “I make time to read or scan the latest every day—and I often get rewarded with seeds of inspiration for our brands and business challenges.” Blumenthal agrees, writing: “Learning naturally leads to cross-pollination and ideation. Ideation can lead to action. Action is how innovation comes to life.”
NEVER THINK THEY KNOW IT ALL
Even though we might think that successful people are truly the biggest experts in their fields, the ones who stay innovative never operate under that assumption. “I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better, and questioning yourself,” shares Musk. That’s why Blumenthal encourages all of his employees to approach the world with a “beginner’s mindset” and look for ways to give themselves fresh perspectives. “Because many of us spend a good portion of our lives working toward some form of expertise, it can feel counterintuitive to ‘think like a beginner,’” he writes. “If you do have expertise, there are ways to give yourself a fresh perspective: Surround yourself with non-experts, interview first-time customers, shop your own website. Hire whip-smart people from outside of your industry.”
Which brings us to our last point…
SURROUND THEMSELVES WITH HEROES
Successful innovators know that they can’t do it alone. The people who surround them—the people who they collaborate with on these revolutionary ideas—are just as critical to making them a success. Which is why they make it a priority to make sure that collaboration happens? During her time at Google, Mayer shared, “We have this great internal list where people post new ideas and everyone can go on and see them. It’s like a voting pool where you can say how good or bad you think an idea is. Those comments lead to new ideas.”
Jobs famously designed the buildings he worked in to make sure collaborative encounters happened. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see,” he said of his time at Pixar. In the spirit of creating new ideas through collaborative encounters, Marriott International hosts “Innovation Days,” at its global corporate HR. It’s an internal conference to bring people from across disciplines together and provide the space to ignite new ideas.
However it’s done, successful people surround themselves with those who inspire them.