How to Innovate


The Wright brothers’ plane lifts off during the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, 17 December 1903.

By Ryan Allis

Let’s start by defining what innovation is. To me, innovation is the process of creating something new that makes life better. Innovation is impossible without passion. Innovators see the world differently. We see the world as it should be as opposed to seeing the world as it is. And we’re entirely restless until we see that better world become real. We are the crazy ones.

Innovators end up becoming obsessed with taking the world from as it is to as it should be. They become obsessed with making the world better. Many innovators  in the for-profit sector focus incessantly on bringing value to market. Others focus incessantly on the core research needed to push the human race forward. Regardless of the sectors we play in, we are all relentlessly focused on solving problems and creating a better world than the one that exists today.

Examples of Today’s Innovators

I’ll share with you four quick profiles of some of my favorite contemporary innovators.

Jack Andraka was only born in 1997, but by the age of 15 he has already changed the world with his innovation. Andraka has developed a new way to detect pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer during early stages when there is a much higher likelihood of a cure. His inexpensive method, which could save countless lives, won the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Eesha Khare is another impressive young innovator, who at the age of 18 created a tiny device that could charge a mobile phone in 20-30 seconds—a revolutionary technology she calls a “super-capacitor.” She won the 2013 Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for her invention, and plans to use the prize money to pay for her tuition at Harvard and continue her work as an inventor.

Jeffrey Grossman is a professor at MIT in the field of nanotechnology and he recently showed how sheets of graphene, a one-atom-thick form of the element carbon carbon, can be used to desalinate water. This innovation could potentially provide a cost effective solution to the increasing worldwide problem of a shortage of fresh water. He also produced an amazing course called “Understanding Science for Tomorrow,” which is part of The Great Courses and available online to purchase.

Robert Pera was an Apple hardware engineer who struck out on his own in 2005 with the goal of bringing affordable wireless internet access to the world’s emerging markets. By the age of 34, Robert has created a public company, Ubiquiti Networks, worth nearly a billion dollars, that is bringing Internet access to developing world through Wi-max Wi-fi networks. He’s truly bringing the cloud to the world and doing an amazing service while making a lot of money at the same time.

A Five-Step Innovation Process

Let me share six keys to innovation that, regardless whether you’re in a government organization or a non-profit organization or in the private sector working as part of a business, can enable you to innovate and create something new that makes the world better.

  1. Define the problem very clearly. Oftentimes if you’re not having a clear idea of the change you’re trying to make, it’s harder to think about the solutions.

  1. Throw out as many constraints to your thinking as possible. Enter into a safe area where you don’t have constraints, where you feel like you’re not being judged, where you can throw out all the constraints to your thinking. You want to be with a group of people whom you know and with whom you can just be silly, be yourself, and be creative. As often as you can, throw out constraints to your thinking and put yourself in a very comfortable environment.

  1. Ensure those working to solve the problem are deeply passionate about solving the problem. Don’t put someone on a small group innovation team if they themselves couldn’t really care less about changing the world through the solution they’re seeking. You want to find people who are deeply passionate and who deeply care about finding that solution and have more than simply an economic incentive. It takes that kind of passion to drive them to think differently than other people.

  1. Ideate in small groups. When you can combine the best creative thinkers with the domain experts in an environment that is set up to throw out constraints, amazing solutions can emerge. During the brainstorming phase, capture all ideas regardless of how silly they are and don’t start evaluating or critiquing ideas until you’ve finished the brainstorming phase. Take a look at the steps of the design thinking process (Empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test). Go wide, and then narrow ideas down for prototyping and testing.

  2. Create an incentive competition that provides prizes for the best innovation. You can publicize these around the world. One example is the Ansari X Prize, which in 2004 provided a $10 million prize for the first team to build a spaceship privately that would go into outer space twice within two weeks. The Ansari X Prize was modeled after the Orteig Prize, which was won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for being the first to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Often the amount of money spent winning the prize is many times greater than the prize itself. Eventually, the Ansari X Prize was won by the SpaceShipOne team backed by Paul Allen and with the technology of Burt Rutan. It ended up being able to succeed, seven years after the prize was announced, by going into space twice within two weeks. Other examples include Netflix, which created a $1 million prize for a matching algorithm that would better by 10% their preference matching and their predictability in determining their subscribers’ viewing patterns. Find ways to create incentive competitions and provide prizes for the innovation you’re looking for.

Innovating Inside a Big Company

“Art is not a gene or a specific talent. It’s an attitude, available to anyone who has a vision that others don’t, and the guts to do something about it. Steve Jobs was an artist. So were Henry Ford and Martin Luther King Jr.” –Seth Godin

Too many companies focus on serving their existing customer base at the expense of investing in new technologies or business models that may serve their customers’ future needs—this is the central thesis of Clay Christensen’s seminal 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen’s advice is something all entrepreneurs should take to heart. While it’s important to focus on what he calls “sustaining innovation”—the kind of innovation that serves your existing customer base by improving and upgrading your existing product—it’s also critical to give some significant attention to what he calls “disruptive innovation.” Disruptive innovation means testing new products or services.

The results of this kind of innovation may not immediately serve your existing customers—but they hold potential for reaching new markets or serving your existing market in a future that those customers are not yet aware of. Disruptive innovation can be counterintuitive, because it involves diverting resources away from currently profitable activities toward unproven technologies or products with uncertain markets. But if you don’t do it, someone else will. It’s much better to disruptively cannibalize your own revenue stream than to have your competitors do it.

Creating An Environment for Innovation

If you want to encourage innovation in your company, location matters. If you study the history of innovation, you’ll see that breakthroughs rarely happen in a vacuum. As Stephen Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation more often happens through the interactions between ideas that are able to rub up against each other in conducive, fertile environments.

Johnson observes:

“When one looks at innovation in nature and in culture, environments that build walls around good ideas tend to be less innovative in the long run than more open-ended environments. Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

Think about this principle as you choose a location for your business and as you create a workplace environment. Having your business located in a thriving center of innovation and interaction like Silicon Valley can make an enormous difference to its innovative potential. Bringing your team to work in an office space that allows interaction can also make a big difference, fostering greater creativity. If people are siloed, they miss the opportunity for serendipitous innovation that can occur when one person’s spark of an idea is fanned by another person’s creative thinking. Consider creating a more open office environment if you can, while respecting people’s need for focused “maker time” as well.

In addition the physical environment, make sure that the cultural environment you create is conducive to innovation. Encourage your team to think creatively. Make space for their independent ideas. A great example of this approach is Google, which encourages all its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on a project that interests them personally. Some of Google’s great products and innovations have been born out of this “20 percent time,” (or “Innovation Time Off, as it’s officially known,) including Gmail and Adsense. Johnson quotes Marissa Mayer (then VP of Search Products and User Experience at Google) as claiming that as many as 50% of Google’s products have grown out of seeds sown in this program.

As Google engineer Bharat Mediratta wrote in his New York Times op-ed describing the program, “when you give engineers the chance to apply their passion to their company, they can do amazing things.”