Innovation means different things to different people.
On a granular level, it means creating new things out of old things. More generally, innovation can mean doing things in a completely new and different way.
Early in my career, I worked for a big advertising agency, running accounts for brands part of Fortune 500 companies like Kodak, Pizza Hut, and Zantac75 (and yes, after working on Pizza Hut it was ironic to listen to focus groups of heartburn sufferers who ate too much pizza and therefore needed Zantac75). There were processes and protocols and “formulas” (rules) for how to do things. I worked in account management which was often considered the least “creative” part of the business. We were the client managers, the taskmasters, the doers. We stayed out of the way of the creatives so they had plenty of room to come up with ideas. But in big agencies, true creativity was sometimes hard for even the most creative of creatives because working with big, corporate clients meant everything needed to be tested and proven (more rules).
The challenge with innovation in big companies is that true creativity requires speed and agility and the ability to take chances. Big companies are often risk-averse. And taking chances — or truly innovating — requires buy-in from the top down. This takes time and often by the time an idea is approved by the key stakeholders (senior leadership, board members, etc.), the idea might not be innovative anymore because someone else has done it. Or because of risk-averse corporate culture, an idea may be “dumbed down” to the point that it’s no longer going to break through.
In small companies, innovation happens on the ground floor. And while yes, of course, there are various stakeholders that need to buy in, great ideas can happen… right away.
After I left the ad agency, I started my own PR company, called Stanton & Company. We are small, which means every person is a key spoke in the wheel. We can move fast and try things. And we can trust our instincts, test, experiment, and be brave in the work we do every single day. Because when you’re small, it’s less about establishing a scalable “right way” of doing things, and more about finding the best ways that work for you today. Right now.
Innovation is a state. It’s something you practice. So if you never want to run out of ideas, here are 5 ways to stay in a constant state of innovation.
1. Read, watch, listen, observe, and gain exposure to new ideas.
There’s a great Fast Company piece titled, “Want to be unstoppable? Work at an intersection.”
The takeaway is that the best ideas happen in the places people least expect to find them. Moments of inspiration come right after you’ve read a book about a topic you knew nothing about before, or right after watching a random documentary recommended to you by a friend. These moments — or sparks — result from hearing or learning about something new, and combining that with the information you’ve accumulated throughout your entire life.
Engineering more of these “unlikely intersections” in our lives has the potential to unlock endless amounts of creativity.
2. Change your environment, and see how it impacts your creative output.
Not all environments are created equal.
This past year during COVID, I have certainly felt a difference working from home versus working at our office. Similarly, I always feel a difference when I’m working while traveling (back in the days when we could travel!). Each environment affects us in unique ways and paying attention to these effects on the way we think, work, act, and so on, helps us fuel an innovative and creative mindset.
It’s worth noting that our environment isn’t just about “where” we are working. It’s also about the people we’re sharing the space with.
Some work environments naturally foster creativity because they’re full of highly creative people — people that are naturally idea generators. Other environments hinder innovation because people are driven or incentivized by other things (like getting a promotion or satisfying a challenging client). So finding ways to not only choose your physical environment but also your community, is important in order to remain open and willing to pursue new ideas.
And sometimes we have more control over our environments than we think. A walk around the block or a chat with someone outside of your coworking group can provide that breath of fresh air we need, literally and figuratively, to reboot our creative engine.
3. Check in with yourself: how often do you challenge yourself to innovate?
Every week, or every month, or even every couple of months, do a quick self-assessment.
- What was the last big idea you came up with?
- Where did it come from?
- What fueled it?
- Where were you?
- Who around you do you find inspiring?
- What gets you in the creative flow?
These are important questions to ask whenever you feel like your creative juices aren’t flowing. Sometimes lack of innovation can be stuck in either your daily habits, your environment, or a mix of both. So taking the time to question what’s holding you back is an important first step to moving forward. And then act on your findings.
4. It’s all about openness.
Creativity is an emotional process.
Sometimes creativity can feel uncomfortable. If you aren’t open to ideas that challenge the current status quo, you’re going to have a very hard time innovating. For example, if you are focused on not losing your job versus expanding your current one, you’re probably not going to want to push boundaries or “rock the boat” — you may be in a risk-averse mindset without even realizing it.
This drove me crazy working in big corporate environments early on in my career. People seemed a lot less focused on building the business and creating something new, and a lot more concerned with incremental improvements and making themselves look good to leadership. And while this may seem like a good move in the short term, it certainly doesn’t do much to flex the creativity muscle or create real progress or innovation. And, that can become a dangerous cycle: it makes it harder as time goes on to be creative, or for those around you to be creative.
The other thing that’s important to acknowledge here is that, no matter how hard you try to prepare yourself, the world will change. Just look at the ways COVID has impacted nearly every country around the world this year. Part of being able to pivot and change directions very quickly is being open to the fact that what works today might stop working tomorrow.
So you can either be dragged into the future by force, or you can embrace change and leap at the opportunity to create the next thing.
At the end of the day, it’s a choice.
5. Guts and bravery
Building on the above, bravery is a big part of innovation.
It’s hard being the person in the room suggesting something totally different. You’re really putting yourself out there. It’s especially difficult when you believe a new direction is the right direction and 99% of people don’t agree with you (yet). There’s a certain level of self-belief that comes with being a true innovator. You have to be willing to take chances. You have to have guts.
I have a lot of respect for people who, throughout their careers, have found ways to reinvent themselves, their companies, their products and services, and even their environments over and over again. To me, that’s true innovation: always changing, constantly self-reflecting, always growing, regularly pivoting (even if it’s uncomfortable), constantly pushing yourself to take risks, always searching for the next branch to leap to — never afraid of leaving the status quo behind.
If this is what you want — to be an innovator and pioneer — then start taking chances and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone. There’s no better time to do it than the present.