In a recent poll, Oxogen found that 73% believe mindset to be the essential attribute of an innovator, and I have to agree with that. Skills can be traded, money can be found, and there is a wealth of support out there for great ideas. However, the thing that makes the difference between making it and a flop is the mindset. It is what investors look for, it is what builds great teams, and it is what leads to great innovative products.
Before we examine mindset, let's look at what we mean by innovation. Innovation can fall into two main camps:
Original innovation - doing something never been seen before (an invention) and applying it to be useful to people and viable to provide (commercially etc.)
Reorientated Innovation - applying inventions and innovations in new ways and/or to new sectors.
Note how there is a need for the innovation to be both valuable and viable. This is where invention and innovation differ. It is not enough to solve the technical problem; we need to have something useful (the human aspect) and viable (the commercial aspect) to be a true innovation.
When we innovate, we cannot just iterate off what others have done before. Instead, we are making a step change, shining a light into the darkness, exposing a complex world and simplifying it.
It is, in fact, that very notion of complexity that requires a particular mindset. We are exploring problems that do not have apparent answers. If they were evident, they would already have solutions. Thought and expertise will only get you so far in this complex space. After all, who can be an expert in the output of an unpredictable system!
A key reason why innovation is complex is down to you and me. People! Humans make life complex because we are all different, and we are complex organisms with complex bodies and complex consciousness. We have different experiences, backgrounds, gender, sexuality, race, education, careers, skills, and natural tendencies. Our parents nurtured us differently; our genes give us innate differences.
It can be easy to treat people in the system as copies of ourselves, logical, knowledgeable, invested etc. This is particularly the case for the scientific and engineering sectors. We assume logical and predictable responses. We believe that the users will think as we do. We convince ourselves that users understand the solution as we do - the solutions we have been living and breathing for weeks, months and years. If this were true, we could easily design innovative products quickly and easily, getting them right the first time. (Sounds boring!)
So the first thing we must instil into our heads is the user's need at the centre. We are not the user; only the person using it is. So we need to see through their eyes, learn how they think, learn about their environment find the common traits among all users that we can tackle. If you consider the user throughout, they will love you for it; they will love your product and tell everyone!
Oh, and of course don't forget that you are complex too, more than you know. This means you bring your assumptions and biases into your innovation project. Things you hold to be unquestioningly true may not prove to be once you have applied a user-centric mindset. It can be disconcerting how our unconscious biases can play out in reality. Kim Barnes, in her article 'Facts, Assumptions and Values: Managing Unconscious Bias' published on June 1, 2016, illustrates this nicely with the following story:
"As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. Not many members of a typical symphony orchestra's screening committee would have believed that they were deliberately choosing men over women in hiring musicians. Perhaps they sincerely believed that men were better musicians by the evidence of their proportion in the existing orchestra. But once "blind auditions," with a screen hiding the applicant, made it impossible to observe the gender of the musicians who were demonstrating their skills, a significantly higher proportion of women were chosen than before. (Many orchestras now are close to 50/50). Now, the choice could be based on what committee members were hearing without the distraction of their internal and unacknowledged bias."
Learn by doing
So innovation is complex, people are complex, and no one has any knowledge or expertise that can tell us the answer. So we are going to have to do it ourselves - we have to learn a few things!
We will have to learn, not like we did at school with an open textbook (not all of us!) but through experience. Try things and see what the response is. We are not going to get it right the first time, and that's ok. Instead, we need to learn in small, fast and cheap chunks. We tackle one challenge and do the smallest amount of work we can to learn to improve. We use tools like sketches, mockups, prototype, proof of concepts to prove that we have the makings of a solution. We listen, watch and record to capture insights and learnings that can go into the next round of learning opportunities.
Something that goes hand in hand with these fast learn loops is failure. Of course, we are going to fail at times. However, by making losses small and quick, we flip the script and turn a catastrophic flop into a positive driving force as it is the learnings from failure that push us even closer to our success.
You only have to search "Apple Failings" to get a very long list of product failures on their way to being the juggernaut they are now. And those are the ones we have heard about! Think of all the 'failings' they would have ironed out in product development!
Through your lens
As you will be gathering now, your view, your knowledge and your experience are only a tiny piece of the puzzle. A product built with your perspective will be very one dimensional (with a market of 1!).
"It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say 'It's as plain as the nose on your face.' But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?" ― Isaac Asimov, I, Robot
We, therefore, need to grow our perspective and the first thing we can do is collaborate. We build teams and engage users. We communicate what we are learning, and we listen to each other's thoughts. We get their views; we seek input that will challenge our thoughts and ideas. You are not going to get challenged, though, without diversity. A group can be at their optimal, collaborating really well together but will not draw out the best ideas if they all have the same thoughts. Bring together people with different backgrounds, skills, experiences and viewpoints, and you will have immense power to drive better ideas.
You are never sure where the next, but invaluable insight will come from. So keep sharing your wisdom, findings and challenges as widely as you can. Communicating with a broader audience allows you to draw in more experience and hear more voices that further extend your perspective. not only that, but you gain more engagement, more buy-in and gather more people to be part of your tribe. The products I feel closest to are where I have been welcomed into the design and development process as a user. I am a big advocate for the low-code tool Budibase, for example. They welcome user feedback and respond well to it; they know it is improving their product.
There is one final challenge in achieving the proper perspective. It can be so easy to be drawn into the detail of the challenges in front of us. It is vital to focus in to give them the attention they need. But, if we stay focused on the detail, we lose sight of the big picture - why are we doing it, what's important, and most of all, where is the value for the user. To achieve a user-centric solution that is focused and refined, you need to maintain both perspectives—creating great solutions and understanding where they fit in the context. I cannot count how many times I have seen products go off course, make an unnecessary effort and lose their way due to losing the big picture.
Maintaining these mindsets is going to provide a constantly changing landscape. New information will continuously lead to evolving opinions, evidence pointing in new directions. To successfully navigate, you will need to be willing to change course in the face of new information. It is super easy to become invested in our ideas and stubbornly pursue them no matter what new info is telling us. However, this helps no one. We need to be comfortable that we make decisions with the information we have at hand and that when new info comes in, we have the option to change our mind. It is this agility that will allow you to turn away from dead ends in your product development journey earlier before they're a sap on your resources, or worse!
"I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday." ― Abraham Lincoln
It's fair to say that all these concepts can be hard to manage. Still, we can think of this as being "openly curious about people". Curious about what users need, curious about what other people are thinking, curious about your own assumptions and bias.
The earlier you can engage in the mindset I have described here, the more success you will have. You will find yourself turning back from dead ends sooner and navigating your way through the complexity that innovative solutions have to tackle. As a result, you will use less resource to achieve the same goal and the changes of early traction much greater.