A Wired article once dubbed innovation “the most important and overused word in America.” And, still today, it seems that the more we say the word, the less we actually do it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Innovation is the “great equalizer”. It not only gives underdogs a chance but oftentimes, it gives them an advantage. And while the experience is critical to success in many business pursuits, when it comes to innovation, there’s a benefit to knowing less. In other words, it’s a plus to be inexperienced.
If you’re serious about innovation, you must first accept that it’s fundamentally about people, not process. It requires more than applying the latest management technique or following a recipe to generate new ideas. You need to have the right mindset — or what I call “the innovator’s spirit.”
The concept of “spirit” is more often associated with religion or spirituality than it is with innovation. But a person’s spirit simply makes up the qualities that define their true character. It goes beyond someone’s curated resume or public persona and gets at who they really are. It also predicts how they’ll act under pressure or in moments of crisis.
The innovator’s spirit
The innovator’s spirit is an inner belief that enables the behaviors that make innovation possible. Now, at one time, I presumed that people either had such a belief or not. But after examining my own career journey, as well as the journey of many others, I came to realize that my initial perspective, besides being black-and-white, was pretty shortsighted. Beliefs are learned, and that means the innovator’s spirit resides in all of us if we’re willing to tap into it.
The challenge for most of us, however, is that our life experiences have created beliefs and ways of being that essentially get in the way of innovation. Over time, we’ve learned that it’s better to avoid risks than to take them, to settle for best practices rather than strive for something better, and to view crises as problems instead of opportunities to pursue a new path.
Moreover, many of our beliefs as individuals were formed from the earliest days of our childhood, when we were taught to abide by the rules, accept things as they are, and always “color inside the lines.” So as we advance into our careers, it’s harder to go against the grain and embrace risk and failure, as well as see boundary conditions as merely a personal choice. And that’s exactly why young professionals — those with less experience, not more — have an advantage in developing their own innovator’s spirit.
When less is more
Many young professionals think that only senior execs or seasoned experts can drive innovation. If you happen to be one of these young professionals, I’ve got good news: you’re wrong. In fact, it’s earlier — not later — in your career that you have certain attributes that can make you a real force in driving innovation in your work group or company.
Are you in? Start by using these four strategies.
1. Leverage your naïveté.
The trouble with experts is that they already know what’s not possible. In fact, that’s part of what makes them an expert.
But innovation is about doing something that’s never been done before. It’s about making the impossible, possible. And it’s here that your naïveté, or inexperience, can be a huge advantage. Why? Because it helps you break free from preconceived notions or boundary conditions and pursue the kind of ideas that the old hands deem impossible. And that, of course, is what innovation is all about.
Takeaway: Embrace your naïveté as a strength, not a weakness.
2. Connect new and different dots.
Young professionals often feel intimidated by their older colleagues simply because they have more experience than them. But an essential part of innovation is making analogies across domains.
So lean in, then, to the unique experiences that your more senior colleagues may not have had — like studying abroad, taking a gap year, or having a unique hobby or side hustle — and draw from those experiences in novel ways. Innovation is fundamentally about finding new solutions to problems, and that commonly comes from applying existing ideas in a new way or an alternate context.
Takeaway: Your ability to innovate doesn’t lie in your resume or “relevant” experience, but instead, in connecting the dots in new and different ways
3. Be the voice of an all-new customer.
Most successful businesses are built on an intimate knowledge of their existing customers’ wants and needs. But innovation also comes from finding brand-new customers.
By viewing yourself as that new customer, you can come to understand the problems for a previously untapped or newly emerging segment of the market. Moreover, you can become their voice, not just in terms of products or services, but also in buying preferences and the many intangibles so important to today’s brands.
Takeaway: By thinking of yourself as more than an employee, you can serve as the voice of an all-new customer and market.
4. Maximize your fresh perspective.
Over the years, chances are that many of your older colleagues have lost some, if not much, of the enthusiasm they once had for their work. And while they’ve enjoyed their share of successes, they’re likely to focus more on their failures. As golfers are known to say, you putt worse as you get older because you remember and lament all the ones you’ve missed.
Innovating begins and ends with your attitude, including believing that anything is possible. So make the most of your fresh perspective and youthful positivity. It’s a lot more valuable than you think.
Takeaway: Never underestimate the power of fresh eyes and a positive attitude.
No doubt, many factors will play into your professional success. And while wisdom is a by-product of experience — earned over a number of years and countless cycles of learning — less really can be more when it comes to innovation. As a young professional, you don’t know what you don’t know, and as a result, you have a unique advantage: You also don’t know what’s not possible.
So leverage your naïveté, connect new and different dots, be the voice of an all-new customer, and maximize your fresh perspective. You’ll innovate in more and better ways than you — and your older colleagues — could have ever imagined.
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Chuck Swoboda is an author, speaker, podcaster, and sought-after expert in the intersection of leadership and innovation. The innovator-in-residence at Marquette University and president of Cape Point Advisors, he previously served as chairman and CEO of Cree, Inc., where he led the world’s LED lighting revolution and grew the company into a $1.6 billion global enterprise. He is host of the podcast “Innovators on Tap” and author of The Innovator’s Spirit: Discover the Mindset to Pursue the Impossible (Fast Company), as well as co-inventor on more than 25 patents. Learn more at chuckswoboda.com.