What do you whisper to yourself when you think no one is listening?
“I am not a words person.”
“I am terrified of speaking in public — because I am terribly shy.”
“Oh no, please do not ask me, I do not have any ideas. I am not the creative type.”
Take a breath and think. If you found yourself nodding along, then you probably believe that you are not a naturally born innovator. And I would agree with you, but only partially. I agree that you were not born an innovator — because no one is. But at the same time, we are all born with the assets necessary to become one.
We are all born with the ability to see opportunities and work hard to overcome challenges. Life is about developing our ability to adapt and innovate over time.
Let me share my experience. I never thought I would start a company. I never even wanted to, until I had a realization in my early 30s. When I looked at what I enjoyed and what I did well, I saw the intersection of many skills that company founders need: identifying meaningful insights, developing concepts, bringing those concepts to market, and leading teams.
I was not born a company founder — I built myself into it through my action and intention. I have used those skills that I refined over the years. Since then, my last two ventures were acquired by well-known public companies. And, as you probably know, Aha! is now one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. and the world’s #1 roadmapping software.
But this is not a “go start your own company and change the world” pep talk. The point is that you can be an innovator regardless of your job and level of responsibility. You can create positive change for yourself and others in everything you do.
You need to see into the future — to anticipate what is coming for you and the team you work with. That is what it means to be inventive and to be a leader.
A recent study found that people who were given incentives to innovate were just as skilled at doing so as those who were naturally self-motivated. In other words, innovation can be learned and made. It can be conscientiously pursued.
If you do have aspirations as an entrepreneur, this study should make you take notice. Consumers today have no patience for products and companies that are not able to deliver exceptional new experiences. So it is up to everyone to create a better future. Every person in a company needs to invent a better way.
Here is how to build those skills, regardless of where you are on your innovation journey:
Envision the goal
The key to being innovative is knowing what it is you want to accomplish. To get started, try a simple writing exercise (something like a user story) and keep it top of mind. Write it on a notepad you use every day or on a sticky note at your computer. For example, “In the future, I would like to see ____ turn into ____.” That is one of the simplest ways to see the change you want to help make happen.
Read with purpose
Few things feed your mind better than a good book. Personally, I like to read non-strategy strategy books — books that were not purposefully written about business yet still contain meaningful lessons. (For example, a biography about the Wright brothers.) Seek out a wide range of titles, from the typical business genre to biographies and even fictional stories, that could reveal lessons for your own challenges.
Seek out different perspectives. Be the most curious person in the room. Maybe set up monthly working lunches with people you respect. Focus on refining the ideas you have for achieving the goal you set — these conversations will broaden your perspective, helping you approach problems from different angles. Do not rest on your own assumptions. Push yourself to spark new ways of thinking.
Like the study found, the greatest barrier to being an innovator is believing that you cannot be one. Reject that lie and approach each day with confidence. No, I am not saying you need a great big ego to succeed. But you do need to believe in your vision and your efforts to make it a reality. Those little negative stories you have been telling yourself about what you cannot do? Reverse course. Start saying “yes, I can” instead.
Once you have made the other actions on this list a part of your daily habits and routine, you should be feeling more self-assured. Find ways to reframe challenges and imagine alternative approaches. Reach for meaningful insights in everything you do. You do not have to immediately tackle an enormous business or life-changing goal, but you can make incremental progress towards it.
You may not start a company tomorrow. Or even this year. But you can become an innovator today.
Being innovative is about knowing what will make the future better and then working hard to make that future happen right now. Keep working with vision and determination. And do not stop until that vision turns into a reality that you are proud of.
And think of yourself as an innovator — because we are all defining the future.
Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.