How to become an innovator

Many people believe that innovators have innate genius. If you weren’t born with it, you’ll never be an innovator. I disagree. My 25 years as entrepreneur and innovator have shown me that anyone can become an innovator.

Most innovations are combinations of things we already know. An Android or iPhone, for example, combines a basic cellphone, camera, touch screen, and other components. Those components are themselves combinations of still-earlier technologies. For example, the cellphone combines a modem, speaker, microphone, antenna, and memory. And each of these technologies combines still-earlier technologies, like electrical wires, resistors, capacitors, and inductors.

Innovators combine existing technologies, either deliberately or by accident, to innovate. Innovations are thus descended from a family tree of technologies, similar to your biological family tree, but with two key differences.

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First, an innovation may have many “parents” (technologies that the innovation comprises), not just two as in biology. Second, those parent technologies need not be “alive” (currently in use) when the innovator combines them. Your innovation might bring back an obsolete technology that has been out of use for decades. Old patents can be a great inspiration source for innovation.

So innovation is not magic. Innovators take things they already know and combine them in new ways. In other words, you have everything you need to innovate!

Here’s how you can innovate in five steps from Unleash Your Inner Company.

Step 1: List the skills, technologies, and fields you are proficient in or knowledgeable about

Include those for which you have gained proficiency or knowledge either through formal study or practice – perhaps software development, lab technique, or circuit design – or through sports or hobbies, such as scuba diving, playing the guitar, and culinary skills. Invite a close friend or colleague to help you remember things that you may have forgotten or taken for granted.

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Maybe you studied chemistry in college. Last summer, you learned how to make a website for a family member’s small business. You have been an avid football fan your entire life. Finally, you spent a year working part-time in a café and became an expert in mobile payments.

Step 2: List the combinations of those skills, technologies, and fields

In Step 1, let’s say you listed Football, Chemistry, Website design, and Mobile payments. Taken two at a time, there are six unique combinations of those four items:

  1. Football + Chemistry
  2. Football + Website design
  3. Football + Mobile payments
  4. Chemistry + Website design
  5. Chemistry + Mobile payments
  6. Website design + Mobile payments

Later, you can try combining them three or more at a time (e.g. Football + Chemistry + Website design)

The more skills, technologies, and fields on your list in Step 1 means the more combinations and opportunities to innovate in Step 2. As you add items to your list in Step 1, the number of combinations grows very rapidly. 

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How rapidly? In the example above, four items create six unique combinations. Now say you double your number of skills, technologies, and fields from four to eight. The number of unique pairs will now be 28 – more than four times as many combinations. If you double your number of items again to 16, the number of unique pairs will be 120 – again, over four times as many combinations. In general, if you are proficient in or knowledgeable of a total of N skills, technologies, and fields, you will have N(N-1)/2 pairs to work with.

But that includes only the combinations that are pairs of skills and technologies. As noted above, we can also create combinations that take your skills, technologies, and fields three at a time, four at a time, and so on. If you consider all of these combinations as well, there are 2^N total combinations. With 10 skills, technologies, and fields (N=10), there are 2^10 - 1 = 1,023 total combinations. Each new skill, technology, and field you learn doubles the total number of combinations you have to work with! You can see how successful innovators have a natural curiosity about the world, which gives them more skills, technologies, and fields to combine.

Your co-founder, if you have one, will have his or her own unique list of skills, technologies, and fields. By teaming up and combining your lists, you will have many more combinations together than you have separately. 

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Step 3: Find customer needs that each combination might satisfy

Now it’s time to get entrepreneurial. Look for either new customer needs that each of your combinations might satisfy, or existing customer needs they might satisfy in a novel way. A customer need has two parts: the “need” – which may be a desire or want, rather than an essential human need – and the customer – the group of individuals, businesses, or other organizations that have the need. Fundamentally, entrepreneurship is a search for innovation that satisfies a customer need.

Step 3 deserves plenty of time for thought and reflection. Most of your combinations will either a) already have been applied by someone else, for example, a cellphone and a camera to make a smart phone, or b) not obviously satisfy any customer need, for example, the combination of ski gear and culinary skills. So it takes time, serious thought, and discussion with potential customers to come up with either new customer needs or existing customer needs you can satisfy in a novel way. By using different combinations of skills, technologies, and fields than others are using, rather than merely trying to be better than others, you avoid competing with existing firms directly and your innovation has time and space to catch on. Different is better than better.

Let’s say your skills, technologies, and fields are again the four listed above (Football, Chemistry, Website design, and Mobile payments). Make a table of six pair-wise combinations and possible customer needs you might come up with:

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If you are very ambitious, consider some of the combinations that seem promising that take your skills, technologies, and fields three or four at a time as well. Your table may suggest skills, technologies, and fields in which you will have to gain proficiency or knowledge to best satisfy each potential customer need. If so, add these in a separate column in your chart.

Don’t stop at the first customer needs you come up with. Many products invented for one purpose – for example, Listerine, Coca-Cola, and Viagra – were duds for their originally-conceived customer need but best sellers for others. Challenge yourself to find several customer needs that each of your combinations might satisfy.

Step 4: Confirm that potential needs are real

“Real” means that a sufficiently large number of people have the need, or have it sufficiently intensely; and that the need is not already being satisfied by other products and services. To confirm that needs are real, talk to potential users of your innovation. Visit both brick-and-mortar and online stores that serve those customers, see what solutions are currently available, and assess the strengths and limitations of those solutions for the customer need you have identified.

This is your market research step. You might interview prospective customers by phone, in person, or online. Your research should include customers, current solutions, competitors, and experts. These all help you understand the limits of and opportunities presented by existing solutions. Most of your research should be with people. Follow the advice of noted serial entrepreneur Steve Blank: “Get outside and talk to people.” 

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Step 5: Iterate to create the best fit between customer need and your innovation

You may need to narrow or shift the customer need to best benefit from your innovation, or modify the innovation to best fit the customer need. If one or more needs still don’t seem real, cross them off your list. Finally, choose the best innovation-customer need fit, and refine, prototype, and launch that innovation.

Dickey Singh, Prabhjot Singh, and I used this combinatorial approach when we co-founded my third company, mobile intelligence platform Pyze. Our skills and technologies included mobile apps, visual intelligence, and machine learning. The customers are mobile app developers, and the need is user retention and monetization. Combining them in the Pyze platform enabled us to create a successful, highly differentiated solution. So the technique really works. It can work for you, too.

By following these five steps, you – yes, you – can become an innovator. This approach – seeking novel combinations of things you already know – is, on a small scale, the very process by which all innovation takes place. That’s inspiring. Like looking up at the sky at night and knowing that everyone on earth sees the same stars.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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