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Developing an "Eye for Innovation"

Some people have a great eye for photography.  Through years of practice, they develop an instinct or reflex that recognizes when an awesome photographic moment presents itself.  It could be the lighting, composition, colors, people, their facial expressions, and a host of other qualities in a scene that will make a good photographer take notice.  And long before you can explain what it is that he sees, he already has his camera out and has taken a few snap shots.

Now the question is, can you develop a similar "eye for innovation"?  I believe the answer is yes.

Dedication to your Craft

A great photographer understands what makes a great picture.  They leverage this understanding and practice looking for those situations and acting on them.  And like any other practice, the more you do it, the more instinctual the behavior becomes.  Likewise, as a great innovator, you need to understand what makes something a meaningful innovation. Then you need to practice looking for potential innovations and then taking follow-on actions.  The more you practice this, the better your instincts will be for recognizing meaningful innovation.  And when I say a "meaningful innovation", I'm referring to innovations that address a need or frustration that customers care about a lot.  For us, it is never innovation just for innovation's sake.


Some people believe that there are no new ideas.  We simply recycle existing ideas applied to new problems and domains.  I believe that there is some truth to this, but I also believe that true invention of new ideas is alive and well.  But for now, let's go ahead with the assumption that many ideas are reapplied to new domains.

I had an experience that speaks to this, and it resulted in an unexpected inspiration.  I was at the Siggraph trade show which focuses on computer graphics (CG) in the entertainment industry.   I watched a demo of creating a filmed crowd scene using semi-autonomous characters.  It allowed film makers to simulate the behavior of a crowd without having to explicitly manipulate each CG character in the scene.  It was an ah-hah moment for me when I realized that this approach might make 3D CAD more robust.  This resulted in a patent and a new technology called the SolidWorks FeatureXpert.

Strategies for Developing your Eye for Innovation

You want to understand the problem you are solving as comprehensively as possible.  You want to see it from many perspectives, and as deeply as possible.  

These are just a few of the questions you will want to answer both broadly and deeply.

The insights you reveal should be articulated in the most general terms possible.  This makes many more domains relevant to your insights, which gives you more places to look for meaningful innovations.

Finally, you want to constantly practice the process of searching for and evaluating potential solutions.  The more you practice, the better your instincts for innovation will become.  You will do this by proactively looking at people, organizations, problems, and solutions in other domains.

Applying these Strategies

Achieving a Comprehensive Understanding

You want to achieve an understanding that covers multiple perspectives and which also dives deep into as many elements as possible.  There are a whole set of high-level questions you can ask your customers.  The questions below are just a starting point and are meant to spark a more in depth conversation.  A mind map is a great tool for this.  Whether during an interview with a customer, or while you just organize your thoughts on your own.  Adding new branches adds more perspectives.  Expanding existing branches help you to explore a topic more deeply.  See my post, Uncork Your Brain With Mind Maps to learn more.

Articulate your Understanding in General Terms

Review all of the insights that you collected.  Highlight those that seem particularly important, and those that represent significant barriers to your customer's success.  Now go through those items and identify product or industry specific terms and jargon.  It's these terms that limit the domain of your new found insights.  For example, in cycling, the "derailleur" is used to move the chain from one sprocket to another.  Rather than using the term "derailleur", maybe you could instead use "movable guide for a chain".  This is a description that you can expect to see in many types of machines, not just bicycles.  And now you have many other places you can look for relevant innovations.

Practice Searching for and Evaluating Potential Innovations

Now that you have armed yourself with generic descriptions of:

  • Who your customer is
  • The frustrations they are dealing with
  • Their setting
  • Constraints they must work within
  • etc.

It's time to proactively search for potential solutions in other places.  These can be other:

  • Vertical industries
  • Disciplines / areas of expertise
  • Groups of people
  • Products

Yes, this is yet another great opportunity for a mind map.  Use each generic description of an insight as the central node in the mind map.  Then create create branches for each of the places to search.  You can now expand on this mind map by yourself, or in a brainstorming session with your product team.  I plan to discuss brainstorming in a future blog post.  You eventually want to create many nodes in your mind map that are potential solutions.  If you do this right, you should have tons of potential solutions, but only a couple will have true potential.  Remember that idea generations is a numbers game, so generate lots of ideas.

Here is an example of such a mind map.  This is just the start of the mind map.  Your goal for this step would be to expand this into a full sheet of nodes.

Another way to practice this process would be to review your list of generic descriptions once or twice a day.  One benefit is that you become intimately familiar with these items and they become top of mind for you.  It is also an opportunity to ask yourself if you recently experienced something that might have been relevant.

Yet another place to look is nature.  It's had a few billion years to iterate to some fantastic solutions.  Looking to nature for ideas is called Biomimicry and is a growing and exciting field.  One resource you can check out is www.asknature.org 

Developing your Eye for Innovation

Your goal is to instantly recognize when something crosses your path which has the potential to be a relevant innovation.  You get to this point by doing the above exercise as frequently as possible.  So frequently, that this becomes a reflex rather than something you need to think about.  Much like that great photographer we discussed earlier.

As you repeatidly go through this exercise, a number of things will happen:

  • The process will get easier and easier
  • You will find yourself looking at things in a new way that will reveal opportunities you haven't seen before
  • You will then begin to recognize potential solutions in the people, places, and things you encounter throughout your day
  • And just like that great photographer, you will capture inspiration and innovation in places that other people won't even notice

Now It's Your Turn

  • Do you agree that developing an eye for innovation can be learned, or do you feel it is something certain people are born with?
  • Is this thought process something that you can apply to the work that you do?
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts of this blog post?

 I would really like to hear from you.  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.  If you have a thought on any of this, but don't wish to leave a public comment, that's ok.  Send me an email on the Contact Me page.

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Reader Comments (1)

Developing an eye for your craft definitely takes a lot of work, but is well worth it. I agree with you that lots of ideas are recycling, but many are handled in different ways than ever handled before and in this way they are new. I liked your mind map as well, it goes in to a good amount of detail while still being understandable.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterXtreme Xhibits

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