Bringing ideas to life is magical. As an inventor and entrepreneur, I know the feeling. Although many people think big ideas pop into our heads in great shape and without warning, innovators know that creation takes work—a lot of work.
Whether you’re carving your path to entrepreneurship or have found yourself in an innovation rut, here are five strategies to help you develop an innovative mindset and get your mental gears turning:
1. Let your problem be your North Star.
Inventors and entrepreneurs are results-focused. Although it’s their solutions that make for a solid product or business, every solution starts with a problem. It’s the problem that should guide you. The best innovators will define their problems clearly and thoroughly before they even begin thinking about how to tackle them.
Before any new project, my first priority is to identify the problem to solve (PTS). Once I’ve internalized the full context of a problem and simplified its complexities, I can typically refine the problem statement to one that presents its best solution.
And that holds true for anything in life, not just big endeavors. Want to manage your time at work better? Maybe spend less of your day on emails? Name your PTS, find its roots and solve it.
An innovator needs to learn how to develop unambiguous, measurable and actionable problem statements. Without one, your starting point is flimsy, if existent at all.
2. Don’t force inspiration; prepare for it.
Inventors know you can’t plan for your next big idea or creative streak. Because you never know when inspiration is going to hit, you have to be ready when it does.
Your problem statements come into play here. At all times, I make a point to keep three PTS’s on my mind. Doing so ignites my curiosity and fuels diversity, allowing me to solve a problem when I least expect it—whether that’s during a work meeting or in the middle of the night.
For example, my company specializes in eye interaction for augmented reality and virtual reality technologies. One of my three PTS’s might be identifying a distinctive eye signal. While watching Stephen Curry perfectly sink a three-pointer, I feel my eyes follow the ball’s arc and then fixate as the ball swishes in the net. I suddenly realize that the transition in my view’s velocity is exactly the distinctive signal I’m looking for.
I could have never predicted that realization, but I was ready for it. Keep your problem statements top of mind and let them simmer. Inspiration won’t catch you off guard if you’re prepared.
3. Know what you’re listening for.
You already know to listen, but aimlessly listening rarely yields results. Learn how to listen for intent.
There are a lot of talkers in the world—a lot of talks, seminars and general babel. At the risk of sounding a bit like some of those seminars, make sure your ear is tuned to pick up when someone is really ready to move forward with an idea.
Related: How to Turn Your Ideas Into Action
The world is so full of words, and finding out which of those words will lead to action is beyond important. It will keep you from wasting time on halfhearted ventures.
4. Let your tasks be complementary, not competing.
Being an inventor or entrepreneur is demanding. Being both requires even more grit and elbow grease. I’m not going to lie and tell you this is easy, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Aim to blend your to-do lists and roles and make them mutually supportive.
People often think of things in separate, easily defined categories, but that’s not the case. Ideas and projects cross-pollinate because they benefit from interaction with each other. I deliberately look for those symbiotic relationships that form between business, invention, patents and entrepreneurship. That way, success in one area will benefit another.
Innovation requires agility, and you can’t allow yourself to become complacent if you want to remain agile.
For example, you need to think big to innovate, but you can’t afford to ignore the details. People will notice even the smallest mistakes or shortcomings. The moment you find yourself saying, “No worries, users are never going to see that,” you’ve opted for laziness. Trust me when I say that users are near-perfect critics. They’ll judge your creation with astounding accuracy and let you know when it falls short.
You might be tempted to get comfortable with your first idea, especially when it’s your brainchild. It happens to everyone, but nip it in the bud when you notice it. That comfort inhibits growth. You need to be prepared to work toward your best idea, not just the first one that excites you.
Present your idea to people you don’t know and take their reactions seriously. If it turns out that your idea isn’t really addressing your problem statement, take that great idea you just had, set it aside and keep thinking. Act as your own devil’s advocate and see your thoughts as your opponents might. When you let go of laziness and complacency, innovation becomes a lot more lightweight.
Sporadic inspiration is only a small part of innovation—the rest requires the innovator’s work, and it’s your mindset that fuels your efforts. Whether you’re an inventor, an entrepreneur, or both, developing an innovative mindset should be your first step.
Photo by Chawki/Twenty20
Jim Marggraff is a serial entrepreneur dedicated to developing innovative technologies. Jim’s latest company, Eyefluence, was recently acquired by Google. He also invented the LeapPad learning system and the Livescribe smartpen. Jim is not only an entrepreneur himself, but a parent of entrepreneurs. Jim’s book, How to Raise a Founder With Heart, is available now.