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Let Me Teach You How To Innovate

Millions of companies exist.

Most of them do the same things – the same things that have been done for a long time. Their fundamental business structure and practices work just fine, as they have for years.

Here’s the problem: No structure, action, or process can be valued on its own accord.

The concept of opportunity cost makes sure that will never be the case.

Understanding Opportunity Cost

Every single decision that a business makes is at the cost of every other possible decision. This is how every business should think. This is how I think. I’m writing this guest post for for Mirasee instead of any and every other blog in the world (including Deep Existence), instead of putting it together with other content for a book, and instead of catching up on the NBA Playoffs (go Derrick Rose and the Bulls!).

Recognizing opportunity cost is the first step in true innovation – you know, the kind that changes the world and gets you rich in the process. When you understand opportunity cost, you begin to see the world in a very different way. It removes any definitive “best steps” to do anything, because the unknown and undiscovered lurks behind you creepily. The unknown almost always has better ways of doing things, and that is where innovation comes in.

Stephen, I Don’t Have The Ability To Innovate!

If you believe it, then it is true. *scary music*

But be aware that it is a false belief and the primary reason for rampant inside-the-box thinking that dominates society. Innovation and creativity are a mindset and practice, not an exclusive gift. Consider the following true story.

A CEO of a major publishing firm hired a group of top psychologists to examine the differences between creative and uncreative employees. After a full year of research, what do you think the difference between the two groups was?

The creative group believed they were creative and the others did not. That’s it.

Afterwards, said CEO implemented a creativity program for the uncreative employees and they became “many more times creative” than the original creative group. Everyone can be creative. Everyone can innovate.

This story is from Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko – buy this book immediately. It is my favorite book and an innovator’s bible. (Full Disclosure: This is an affiliate link and the author of this guest post will get 4% commission (about 50 cents) from Amazon if you buy it.)

How To Innovate: Practice These Techniques

The primary goal of an innovator is to improve something by thinking differently. Sometimes, just being different is enough – such as with art. Some popular artwork is so strange that I expect to see the signature as art by LSD (and sure enough, some if it is by LSD).

These techniques I’m going to suggest involve “unboxing” the mind and allowing it to realize its potential. By the way, this is elementary school in innovation. If you want middle school and up, buy Thinkertoys. Mr. Michalko will show you more advanced “thinkertoys” to help you solve problems (problem-solving is what innovation is all about).

1. Kill Assumptions And Start Over

We use assumptions to build our understanding of reality. You assume that a human wrote this. You assume that you live on a planet warmed by a giant star. Innovation often begins with starting over. Not only will it lead you to some creative ideas, but it will keep your mind active and sharp.

I just killed an assumption. You set a timer or alarm for cooking, right? No, that is one way. Instead of setting a timer, I will play two songs of appropriate length. When the last song finishes, my rice is ready. Don’t downplay the significance of this – it is evidence of an innovative mind.

Google is a master of this. They didn’t ask how they could improve email, they scrapped the current model altogether and came up with Gmail, the most innovative email client I’ve ever used. The archive function allows you to stow all of your mail away (in one click) out of sight and retrieve it anytime with the search function. This is a refreshing alternative to using folders. (Song two just ended = Rice :-D)

2. Break It Up

Evolutionary innovation is often done by breaking up a component into its individual parts and analyzing them for possible improvements.

Apple is great at this. All of their products are a bit more polished and intuitive than the competition (in many aspects). Apple came out with the thinnest laptop and the highest resolution phone – two known areas that they found a way to be better in. I bought an MP3 player about a year before the ubiquitous iPod came out.

3. Explore Stupid Ideas

We’ve all had some ideas that would embarrass us to death if made public. We typically brush them off. Don’t. Seek out quantity in ideas. Coal turns into diamond at high pressure, and our minds are the pressure cookers of stupid ideas. A stupid-looking idea could turn into the next big thing. For example…

Twitter – I use Twitter and think it’s great, but the idea behind it is stupid – “Let’s just rip out the Facebook status and make into a new thing.” It might be hard to see it this way now, but there had to have been a lot of doubt behind one of the greatest social media powerhouses of today. They made it big by smartly modifying and shaping a questionable idea. Twitter is also a great example of breaking something up into parts (FB status) and doing it better.

4. Question Everything

This is the main principle I live and blog by. Why am I typing this on a keyboard? Maybe I could just speak and have my words appear on screen. From that question was born dictation technology (speech to text). An innovator never stops. Take it a step further – thoughts to text.

Now Go Innovate!

While these techniques are simple, they can make a massive difference in your business and personal life. Even though creativity and entrepreneurship are similar beasts, most people don’t even attempt to learn how to innovate, and don’t make changes! As you begin to practice techniques such as these and the ones found in Thinkertoys, you’ll begin to see the world differently. I’m serious. My way of thinking is completely different than it was a few months ago. Once you realize that anyone can innovate and start to do it yourself (small and large), it will snowball and you’ll probably invent the Snerphalart.

About Stephen Guise

Stephen Guise is the author of Mini Habits and the founder of Deep Existence. For more about his story, you might find this blog post interesting - it goes into the unique path of rejection (ouch!) that brought him here (where he's happy to be).

32 thoughts on “Let Me Teach You How To Innovate

  1.  I believe innovators and creatives do possess gifts or maybe better phrased a talent. Can a talent be taught as a skill? Hmmm I am sure it can. In a society or organization individuals possess different talent. One may be incredible at creating ideas while another is great at implementing the idea. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think it important to play up our talents to offset any weakness we might possess. Funny you speak of Opportunity Cost I think there is a huge opportunity cost in trying to be something you are not. I think one should find his natural talent and perfect that talent.

    • Hey there and thank you for your thoughts!

      I agree with you that strengths will differ and some have greater creative and innovative potential than others.  However, the study I mentioned is a pretty strong argument that creativity overall is more of a practice than a gift or natural talent, as in the study the uncreative people became more creative than the “creative people.” 

      You speak of trying to be something you are not.  Creativity supplements talent.  It doesn’t replace it.  Professional Basketball players have a unique and amazing talent of physical coordination and yet they can improve their game with creativity.  The behind the back pass works better than the standard pass in some instances, and it combines creativity with their physical coordination talent.  

      • I agree with you, Stephen. Creativity can be cultivated and developed, and that is ideally done to find creative ways of applying and developing your existing skills. 

  2.  Here’s a killed assumption for you.  You’re not allowed to be the first to comment on your post.  Why not?

    I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts on this.  Do you agree with what I’ve said here?  Do you have any other innovation tips or tricks?  I appreciate your feedback!

    • Hey Stephen, thanks so much for the awesome guest post! Actually, I think that sometimes leaving the first comment is a great way of getting the conversation started. 🙂

      • My pleasure Danny.  I’m happy to contribute to your fantastic blog.  You have a lot of useful information here.  🙂  I may have only been killing my own assumption there, but I don’t see very many bloggers comment first on their posts.     

      • My pleasure Danny.  I’m happy to contribute to your fantastic blog.  You have a lot of useful information here.  🙂  I may have only been killing my own assumption there, but I don’t see very many bloggers comment first on their posts.     

      • My pleasure Danny.  I’m happy to contribute to your fantastic blog.  You have a lot of useful information here.  🙂  I may have only been killing my own assumption there, but I don’t see very many bloggers comment first on their posts.     

      • My pleasure Danny.  I’m happy to contribute to your fantastic blog.  You have a lot of useful information here.  🙂  I may have only been killing my own assumption there, but I don’t see very many bloggers comment first on their posts.     

  3.  Wow Stephen, awesome!

    Thanks for this perspective on things. Half of my degree is in Economics, and the phrase “opportunity cost” takes me back! I’ve never looked at it in that way though, it’s so true. Each choice we make is so important and literally defines our future and who we become, even though the changes often go unacknowledged.

    The book sounds awesome, sorry I can’t earn you 50 cents thought, I’m over in the UK! Definitely going to buy that in my next round of book-buying at Amazon.

    Thanks for this post and Danny thanks for featuring it! It’s a while since I’ve read about Innovation and Creativity, but they are both so important.

    Going to check out your blog when I can grab a spare couple minutes too.

    Thanks again,


    • Thanks for your comment Robert!

      I have a Finance degree, and I think the concept of opportunity cost is the most important thing I learned in school!  It applies to every decision.  I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  It was the inspiration for this post.

      I don’t really care much about the 50 cents, I just figured I might as well get an affiliate commission if I’m going to recommend the purchase anyways.  I almost put a plain Amazon link to the book because I don’t want a commission to scare someone off from reading such a great book!

      I would love to hear how you like the book.  I’ll be keeping tabs on this post if you think to come back and let me know.  It is one of the only books I’ve seen on Amazon with an average review of 5 stars.  The author says that in order to see results, you have to practice the “thinkertoys,” but after every reading session, I always have so many ideas spring up in the following day or so.

      And yeah, check out my blog.  It’s unique!

  4. Your third point hits home with me the most because I’ve always had issues with so-called stupid ideas! As a writer-type, I come up with dumb ideas about every two minutes. I can’t help but think: “Who in the world would possibly care about this?” or “That topic will never get people’s attention.” But, instead of dismissing those ideas or sweeping them under the rug, I always write them down in my notebook to peruse later. And you know what? Some of my best work has come from that slush pile! I’d rather have a list of stupid ideas with innovation potential than a blank sheet of paper, after all. 😉

    Great article, Stephen!

    • Thank you Jill.  I’m happy to hear your stupid ideas are working out for you!  Stupid ideas are great to hold on to because everyone else is thinking of the “golden ideas.”  A big part of innovation isn’t just thinking more creatively, but thinking differently and seeing things that others have missed.   

  5. What a small world, Stephen.  I was just chatting with you last night on #blogchat, and now here you are.  I think there has to be some balance between staying inside the box and periodically questioning why the box has the dimensions it does.  We need to question ourselves more often and dismiss silly ideas more slowly because the danger usually lies in our staying within the comforts of the box.  Most of us have to push ourselves to get out of it.  I’m amazed at how many impossibilities in my own life were only so because I thought they were.  Thanks for the great suggestions on how to see the possibilities.

    • Hi Brad!  Yes, that was my first #blogchat experience.  I loved it.  

      Questioning ourselves is a huge factor, I agree.  I wrote a guest post about that at Skool of Life and I’ll add the link below in case you’re interested in reading it.  Even with my strong beliefs in questioning everything, I must constantly remind myself to do it.  That’s interesting that many of your perceived impossibilities were because of self-imposed limits.  I’ll be thinking about that.  Thanks Brad!

      • I just popped over and read it.  Great post.  I left you a comment there, but it’s in moderation.

        BTW, If you aren’t using TweetChat to keep up with #blogchat, I’d highly recommend it.  Those tweets are overwhelming otherwise.  Hope to see you there again Sunday night.  🙂

        • Thank you for complimenting the post.  Yes, I caught on to the brilliance of tweetchat and used it for the last half.  It was soo much easier to follow.  I’ll add it to my calendar to make sure I remember and I’ll see you Sunday night.  🙂  Yes, I caught on to the brilliance of tweetchat and used it for the last half.  It was soo much easier to follow.  I’ll add it to my calendar to make sure I remember and I’ll see you Sunday night.  🙂  

  6. To choose is to lose. We simply cannot move in all directions at the same time. This doesn’t mean however that we cannot SEE in all directions at the same time. It’s about picking a road, while still not losing sight of the sideroads. This attitude allows you to stay focused while being innovative at the same time. It’s like Brad was saying, a balance between staying inside the box and questioning why you’re there. Always keep an open mind, focus and determination should never come at the cost of innovation

    • “focus and determination should never come at the cost of innovation” – Very wise words, Wim. I’m adding that to my repertoire of solid nuggets! 🙂  

    • Great insights, Wim.  Focus and determination give us success, and innovation leads us to greater success, so it makes sense to have focus and determination as a base to build off of.  I’m not sure why we need to stay inside the box – though this is venturing into semantics I imagine (i.e. what does staying inside the box vs. outside the box look like?).

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