How to Be Innovative: The Definitive Guide (2021)

84% of executives believe that innovation is important to their growth strategy and overall success of their company (source).

But becoming more innovative is easier said than done…

And that’s why we created this guide.

Inside, you’ll find 27 actionable strategies, frameworks, tips (and examples) you can leverage to become more innovative.

Whether you are a strategist, a business leader, an entrepreneur, or just someone trying to develop a creative mind, this article will help you develop great ideas in the workplace, and in everyday life.

Let’s jump in!

How to Be Innovative: The Definitive Guide (2021)

Table of Contents

1. Use this powerful, fear-setting question

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.”

Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister

Whenever you have a new idea or plan on doing something, always ask yourself:

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

As lifehacking guru Tim Ferris mentions, if you cut through the vague unease and ambiguous anxiety by defining your nightmare, the worst-case scenario, you won’t be as worried about it.

So before tossing an idea away, envision yourself executing it and what the worst scenario looks like.

Here are simple additional questions you can ask yourself in order to assess the risk when developing a new idea:

What could go wrong? (define)
How can we prevent that from happening? (prevent)
If it does go wrong, how can we fix it? (repair)
What’s the likelihood of this going wrong?
What’s the impact if it goes wrong?

2. Leverage the “Rule of Three” to increase your productivity

The “Rule of Three” is based on the innovation book “Getting Results the Agile Way” by J.D. Meier.

This concept encourages you to focus on three meaningful goals every day, week, month, and year.

These goals should be “SMART“:

Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-related.

Now, let’s put this in the context of being more innovative:

You could include goals that, by achieving them, will help you to be more innovative.

For instance:

Improve the website UX by Friday
Interview all customers by the end of the quarter and get feedback (e.g. how can we serve you better?)
Increase the average deal size by 30% by the end of the year.

3. Embed design thinking into your culture

Design thinking is a customer-centric approach to brainstorming and problem solving.

The five step process is as follows (source):

1. Empathize: observe and engage with people to find out their physical and emotional needs and how they view the world.
2. Define: based off of what you learned, create an actionable problem statement.
3. Ideate: generate ideas to solve this problem!
4. Prototype: quickly create anything a user can interact with (storyboard, physical product, etc).
5. Test: Get feedback about your prototypes.

Implementing design thinking into your company’s culture can help you come up with more creative and effective solutions (source).

Let’s take a look of how design thinking was used to solve a problem:

Back in 2009, Airbnb was making little to no revenue.

The founders noticed that all of their listings had low quality photos, which they believe contributed to the lack of customers. They went to New York, rented a camera, and took high quality photos of their listings. A week later, their revenue increased (source).

4. Get inspiration from your competitors

What’s working for the best companies in your industry?
What strategies are pushing them to the top?

Take a look at their products and services, website, social media pages, reviews/customer feedback, etc.

Find the things that make them stand out and see if you can leverage and personalize those strategies to work for your company.

Here are three simple steps you can take:

  • Head over to Inc 5000 (it lists the fastest-growing privately-held companies in the U.S.)
  • Find someone in your industry. Make sure they’re 2-5X your revenue.
  • Spend 15 min looking at their website. Write down things you like (along with why) and want to try on yours.

5. Know the 10 different types of innovation and how to combine them

Based off of “Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs” by Larry Keely, Helen Walters, Ryan Pikkel, and Brian Quinn, there are 10 types of innovation.

Let’s take a quick look at them:

1. Profit Model: your plan to create profit.
2. Network: your connections and their value.
3. Structure: tangible and intangible aspects of the company.
4. Process: your unique process in developing your product/service.
5. Product Performance: key features of your product/service.
6. Product System: complimentary products based off of the original product.
7. Service: customer service!
8. Channel: how your product connects to your customers.
9. Brand: how you present your product to customers.
10. Customer Engagement: genuine interactions that encourage customers to connect with your company.

Combining some of these will help you think more broadly and pinpoint opportunities for innovation.

A company that has created a successful combination is Nike!

They combined product performance, brand, channel, and network by opening up Niketown in San Francisco, leveraging celebrity endorsements, and fostering a partnership with Apple (source).

6. Create a vision board to highlight your innovation goals

A vision board is a board filled up with words, images, colors, and patterns that represent your goals and intentions.

You can create a physical board with magazine cut outs, newspapers, stickers, paint, etc. or a virtual board using a graphic design platform.

This project will help you clearly define your goals and spark your creativity during the process. Hanging it up where you can see it everyday will serve as a constant reminder of what it is that’s your trying to achieve!

7. Leverage routinization

This study argues that routinization may be beneficial for creativity and proactive behaviors.

The researchers found that employees whose work had a large measure of routine were more likely to submit ideas; those who had more control over their work did even better.

8. Figure out what time of the day you are most productive

According to this article, 11AM is when people are most productive.

But of course, everyone is different.

To figure out your most productive time, track your productivity for a week. Write down your goals and tasks, what time you completed them, how long it took, and how you felt after completing them – which tasks were easy? More challenging?

Pinpoint the times where you easily completed your tasks and try brainstorming or ideating during them.

9. Use the “Four Action Framework”

The “Four Action Framework” is a concept from Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.

Leveraging this framework will help you brainstorm out of the box and potentially create a new product/service or improve an existing one that will put you ahead of the competition.

This framework challenges entrepreneurs to ask themselves four questions (source):

1. What factors within the industry should be eliminated?
2. What factors should be reduced below industry standards?
3. What factors should be raised above industry standards?
4. What factors should be created that the industry has never offered?

Cirque du Soleil leveraged the Four Action Framework to their advantage.

They eliminated animal performances, reduced humor and the number of performers in the show, raised prices, music, and comfortable seating, and created artistry and sophistication.

By creating a new product, their competition with circuses became irrelevant because they were in a whole new playing field (source).

10. Study failures

“Usually most of us fail at making failures a learning experience” (source).

Don’t dwell on past innovations and ideas that failed.

Instead, reframe your thinking and view these moments as a learning experience for next time.

Ask yourself:

  • What could I have done differently?
  • What was the main reason this initiative didn’t follow through?
  • What will I do to ensure that it won’t happen again?

Startup Cemetery is an online resource that provides fantastic insights on why +100 companies have failed.

11. Focus on the bright spots, and replicate those

Focusing on the bright spots is a concept from “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

Being fixated on problems can stunt progressive change and innovation.

Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on the solution!

Ask yourself:

“What works for me in challenging situations and how can I continue to do more of that?”

Bright spots are instances of over achievement.

By looking back and analyzing these moments, you can replicate the actions you took to reach that success and apply it to other tasks and projects. Taking a solution-based approach can help when you’re stuck in a rut! (source)

For example, say your company created a new product that became successful. What steps did you take to achieve that success? Maybe you had multiple brainstorming sessions or created ten different prototypes. Whatever you did, do it again for your next new product because of how successful it was before.

12. Leverage the Mom Test

Image source

Created by author Rob Fitzpatrick, the Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about.

Use it to improve a product, service, or to test out a new business idea.

Here are three essential rules of the Mom Test (source):

1. Talk about their life instead of your idea (“Hey mom, how’s that new iPad treating you?”)
2. Ask specifics from the past instead of generics or opinions about the future (“What’s the last thing you did on it?”)
3. Talk less and listen more

By leveraging useful customer conversations, you’ll be able to dive deeper into new ideas, and become more innovative along the way.

Watch this video if you want to get a few more details about the Mom Test.

13. Stimulate your mind in the mornings

According to a study from IDC Research, 80% of smartphone owners check and scroll their phones right after waking up.

Instead of getting lost in the endless stream of notifications, emails, and social media posts, try stimulating your mind with something creative, mindful, or physical in the morning.

That includes any form of art, listening to music, journaling, meditation, or even taking a walk outside.  Stimulating your mind in the morning will promote mental strength, focus, and creativity throughout the day.

14. Make innovation part of your employee’s performance evaluations

Having an “Innovation” category within your employee’s performance evaluations will encourage your employees to weave innovative incentives into their daily tasks.

Here are two examples of goals you could include:

Interview all existing customers at least once per quarter to constantly stay on track with their problems/needs and better serve them.

Run 3 experiments per month that are focused on customer acquisition.

15. Use the AARRR framework to identify areas of improvement 

Created by Dave Mcclure, the “Pirate Funnel” is a framework that breaks your company into 6 different areas:

Acquisition: where customers come from.

Activation: the customer’s first happy experience with your product.

Retention: they come back (side note: according to Harvard Business Review, it can be five times to twenty-five times more expensive to acquire a new customer versus retaining a current one),

Referral: they tell other people.

Revenue: you make money!

You can use this framework to better understand the journey of your customers, and test out new ideas to optimize your funnel.

Watch the short video below to understand how it works:

 

16. Create a swipe file of ideas and inspiration

A swipe file is basically a folder you can create to keep graphics, ads, posts, and screenshots that have inspired you all in one place.

Whenever you’re trapped in an innovative block, you can refer back to your swipe file.

Check out this website to get more information on how to get started and browse through their archives of ideas as well!

17. Continuously run experiments to improve key metrics 

The more experiments you run, the more you will learn.

Here are five steps you can take to develop an experimentation mindset:

1. Designate a North Star. This metric that captures the core value you create for customers (for instance: daily active users for Facebook, or nights booked for Airbnb).

2. Analyze your data and customers. Answer questions such as: what sources were they acquired from? Where do they live? What other products do they use?

3. Ideate to improve your North Star. Get your team to submit as many ideas as possible.  Ideas submissions must include: what change is to be tested, why that change might improve results, and how results should be measured.

4. Prioritize your ideas to help determine which ones to test first.

5. Test. Create test summary cards that include the following information: Description of the test, start and end dates, test owner, hypothesis, measured metric, criteria, and key findings.

Source: “Hacking Growth” written by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown.

18. Use the “Business Model Canvas” to challenge your business

This concept can be found in the great book “Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers” by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.

The Business Model Canvas will help you revamp an existing business model or create an entirely new one.

This framework highlights the 9 essential building blocks of any business: (Source)

1. Customer Segments: the people you are creating value for
2. Value Propositions: the value of your products or services
3. Key Activities: things you need to get done to deliver value proposition
4. Channels: how value is communicated, promoted, and delivered
5. Customer Relationships: how you interact with customers
6. Key Resources: assets your company needs
7. Key Partners: who else can help you leverage your business model
8. Revenue Streams: your pricing mechanisms
9. Cost Structure: major cost drivers

Watch the video below to better understand how all these building blocks work together:

19. Remember that you aren’t glued to your desk 

Being stuck at a desk or inside a cubicle can get boring and stunt innovation, especially if you do it 5 days a week.

Intel has constructed an Innovation Open Lab (located in Ireland) for their employees for this very reason. This Lab has whiteboard walls to allow a free flow of creativity and ideas. (Source)

Of course not every company is going to provide a space like this, or you might be working remotely.

But the bottom line is:

Switch up your work environment!

Some other options are working outside for the day, working at your local coffee shop, getting a standing desk, or even sitting on the couch if that works for you!

20. Leverage the “Flywheel Effect” to maintain consistency

Image source

The Flywheel Effect is a concept from Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”.

This concept talks about a metaphorical flywheel that is a bit difficult to get moving. But once you build enough momentum, the flywheel can eventually spin on its own.

This basically means that one big, innovative breakthrough is unlikely to get your company or product on the map. But multiple, consistent innovative ideas and efforts will!

To hear more from Jim Collins himself, check out the short video below:

21. Write ten days down everyday

 James Altucher emphasizes on the idea of strengthening our “idea muscle” by writing down ten ideas everyday (source) .

They don’t have to be ten perfect ideas. In fact, most of them will probably be mediocre. But getting used to writing down ten ideas is a form of holding yourself accountable to being creative.

As the days go by, you might have an easier time thinking of and articulating new ideas – and one of those could be your next greatest innovation initiative!

22. Leverage the “Customer Profile Map” to improve your business value proposition

Image credits: Strategyzer

The “Customer Profile Map” is a building block of the Value Proposition Canvas, a concept from “Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want” by Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Greg Bernarda, and Alan Smith.

It helps you outline customer’s gains, pains, and customer jobs.

This map provides a solid base for you to create your value proposition, which includes gain creators, pain relievers, and products/services (source).

You want to make sure your value proposition aligns with your customers’ needs.

23. Go for a walk outside to boost your creativity

Stanford study has found that walking improves creativity.

“Researchers at Stanford did a series of experiments looking at the effects of walking on creativity, as measured by a test of divergent thinking—which asks people to come up with novel ways of using an everyday item, like a brick or a doorstop.

The researchers compared participants’ performance under four conditions: while walking on a treadmill, while seated inside, while walking outside, or while being wheeled outside in a wheelchair.

Their results showed that walking and being outside each separately led to better performance on the test. Moreover, in one experiment, the researchers showed that the benefits of walking on creativity did not fade immediately, but carried over into performance on future tests.” (study link)

24. Leverage brainstorming sessions

Have you ever had a brainstorming session that didn’t turn out as productive as you hoped?

Sometimes a session with no guidelines or structure can do more harm than good.

Luckily, there’s a variety of brainstorming techniques and tools to help you make more effective sessions.

Brain writing is an example of a brainstorming technique you can use. Your team anonymously writes down their ideas on an index card and randomly shuffles them. Everyone can read these and edit or add on to the ideas. (Source).

For teams who are working remotely and want to have virtual brainstorming sessions, there are tools that can help facilitate this. Some tools we recommend are IdeaBoardz, which is a virtual board that your team can fill with sticky notes, and Popplet, a platform where you can create bubble maps and add text, images, and links. More tools can be found here.

25. Implement the “20% Time” policy 

The “20% Time” policy is one of Google’s most famous philosophies. They encourage their employees to spend 20% of their time working on Google-related side projects, some that could be outside of their traditional roles.

Allotting time for employees to work on side projects can increase innovation, creativity, and collaboration.

Some of Google’s most innovative releases have come from the “20% Time” policy such as Gmail and Google News!

26. Pick up a new book on innovation

There are a ton of great books on innovation that can be helpful resources for more knowledge and inspiration. You can learn actionable tips and tricks to apply to your own ideas.

Two books we recommend are “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision & Reality” by Scott Bellsky and “Change by Design” by Tim Brown.

We actually have a full list of 29 innovation books that can be found here if you want some more options to choose from.

27. Ship something every week 

This is a popular mindset created by Naval Ravikant, CEO of AngelList.

Shipping something means to put an idea, task, or project into motion. It should be something that you’re eager to work on and shouldn’t last longer than a week, two at most (source).

Conclusion

We hope that you liked this list of strategies to help you become more innovative

About Runway Innovation Hub

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