5 Keys to Unlocking the Innovation Mindset

This article is an excerpt from a 25 min keynote by Andy Cars during the Purple Ideas event hosted by Telia Company, January 17, 2017. If you prefer to watch the video here it is.

Most of us hate advertisements, but if I had to pick one that I love, it would be Apple’s Think Different campaign from -97. The one narrated by Steve Jobs. If you are an entrepreneur or innovator trying to build something new to improve the lives of others, I bet that you will identify with the message in that clip.

But as we embark on our journeys to create something truly different, one thing is for sure. We will fail! The market will crush our first fledgling attempts. And of course we may feel under a lot of pressure when things don’t go our way. We may even feel like cursing at our customers for not understanding the true greatness of our creations.

1st KEY: Stop whining and start learning

But complaining and cursing is not going to get us any closer to achieving our vision. And by the way, there is nothing wrong with failing. In fact, failing is an integral part of the innovation process. If we are not failing, we are probably not trying anything new. So it’s not failing that is wrong. What’s wrong is how we sometimes deal with failure.

Either we decide that life sucks and there is nothing that we can do about it, or we begin to fail smart. At it's core, failing smart is easy. Essentially it's about learning from our mistakes, adapting and trying again. When was the last time that you failed smart and what did you learn from that?

All great entrepreneurs and innovators fail in a smart way. They learn from their mistakes and they take that learning with them into their next iteration. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

One of many great things with the startup community is that we have events dedicated to sharing and learning from each other's failures. Failures that have come about as a result of trying to build new business models and creating new customer value. I am of course thinking of FailCon and Fuckup Nights.

The people who go to FailCon and Fuckup Nights all share one thing in common. As psychologist Carol Dweck would say, they all have a growth mindset. A growth mindset is diametrically opposed to a fixed mindset. Fixed mindsets are threatened by the success of other people, and when they fail they complain and generally feel bad about it. They are stressed by challenges and feel constrained by their current abilities. Growth mindsets, on the other hand, feel that they can learn anything and are inspired by challenges and the success of other people. Their attitude drives change.

The good news is that anyone has the ability to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset simply by changing their attitude. It’s not like we have to practice 10 000 hours, as suggested by Malcolm Gladwell, to master a growth mindset. We just have to decide to stop whining and start learning instead.

2nd KEY: Celebrate diversity but stay clear of fixed mindsets

We’ve all heard of the importance of diversity when building teams. That great teams require a good mix of different but complementary competencies and people of different backgrounds and cultures. I am all for this, but in my experience, if you mix people with fixed and growth mindsets on an entrepreneurial team, you’re setting yourself up for endless frustration and gridlock. It’s like oil and water - they just don’t mix very well.

Perhaps I was being a bit too optimistic when I suggested that anyone has the ability to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Changing people's minds is probably one of the hardest things that we can do. So instead of trying to change people, we could actively search for and recruit people with growth mindsets to join our teams.

According to The Innovator's DNA, Jeff Bezos sometimes interviews people for key positions at Amazon. Bezos favourite question to ask is for the candidate to tell him about something that they have invented. The answer to this question tells a lot about the person. Are they curious, are they actively observing the world around them, are they unhappy with the status quo and do they want to improve the world around them? Curious minds that want to challenge the status quo is core to innovation.

3rd KEY: Hang out with T-shaped people

At IDEO, one of the world’s leading design firms, they look for so called T-shaped people to join their company. T-shaped people have a deep knowledge of one area but with the extra curiosity to also have developed a working understanding of additional disciplines. The reason why IDEO actively searches for and hires T-shaped people is because they know that innovation often begins at the intersection of different disciplines.

In an article for Forbes in 2012, Andy Ellwood talks about the Hacker, Hustler and Hipster, when describing what a typical startup dream team looks like. The Hacker is the software developer focused on the solution, the Hustler is the business minded person who is in close contact with customers trying to figure out what problem to solve for, and the Hipster is the UX designer making sure that the interface is beautiful and intuitive while providing a seamless experience across multiple platforms.

4th KEY: Leave your comfort zone and go off exploring new places

Diversity is something the powerful and wealthy Medici family knew a thing or two about. In the 15th Century the Medici family brought together creators from a wide range of disciplines — sculptors, scientist, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects.

This sparked a creative explosion across Florence and far beyond, giving birth to the Renaissance, which still today is referred to as one of the most innovative periods in human history. When we talk about innovative breakthroughs that have come about at the cross-section of diverse disciplines, we often refer to this as the Medici effect.

A modern version of the Medici effect in action would be whenever people meet at a TED conference, or a TEDx conference, which are independently organized events in the spirit of TED. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment & Design. Past speakers include Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Jeff Bezos and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. There have also been several Nobel Prize winners throughout the years. To me TED represents a conscious attempt by brilliant minds to cross-pollinate ideas and perspectives for the purpose of creating a better world.

The more touch points and diverse experiences that we have, the more building blocks do we have access to when associating, combining, creating and exploring. As such, it's hardly surprising to learn that there’s a positive correlation between the number of new and diverse experiences that we have and the number of associations and new ideas that we tend to generate.

This is a photo of my eight month old son crawling around on the kitchen floor. We all know that these eating and pooping machines are the future of humanity. We need them, or else the human race will cease to exist, just like the dinosaurs. The same goes for companies. If we don't invest into new business models today, our chances of long-term survival becomes non-existent.

Besides eating and pooping, this little dude literally spends all his awaken time exploring the world around him! But as you know, when we first start our journey to explore the unknown, we’re really quite small and vulnerable. Perhaps it’s just two or three buddies with some cash and a shared vision. When we're small we need all the support that we can get to keep exploring. What we need is a sponsor.

Inside the big corporation that would typically be a VP who takes care of the red tape and hands you some funds so that you can go off exploring. Just the same way that we can't expect a child to carry a 50 pound backpack when we go hiking, we can’t expect a startup to report ROI and expected revenues and profits down to the third decimal point. The startup may not even have figured out who is going to be the customer, let alone what problem to solve or how to price their solution. They just have an idea of where they would like to start exploring.

5th KEY: Practice a lot at uncovering the unknown unknowns

This is Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defence. Richard Nixon once called him ”a ruthless little bastard”. I can think of another Donald who is also a ruthless little bastard. But that is the fodder for another article. Perhaps one about the perilous rise of right-wing populism and what it feels like to shoot yourself in the foot. But let’s not get sidetracked. This is what Rumsfeld had to say when a journalist asked him to explain why there is no evidence of a link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.

What at first blush may seem as a complete nonsense, is actually quite smart when you think about it. The startup community has picked up on this quote, since it goes to the heart of what entrepreneurship is all about.

Let me explain. If we look at the first part of the quote ”There are KNOWN KNOWNS. These are things we know that we know.” Now this is the domain of managers. We know who our customers are, how to reach them and how to price and package our products. We put one dollar into "the machine" and out pops some multiple of that. It is business as usual and has nothing to do with entrepreneurship whatsoever.

The second part of the quote: ”There are KNOWN UNKNOWNS, that’s to say there are things that we know that we don’t know”. Now this is the reason why entrepreneurs venture outside to interview customers to learn about their problems. What they really care about and how they go about solving those problems today.

We also have the last part of this quote ”But there are unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” This is where things start to get really interesting for the entrepreneur. As we’re interviewing customers and start to dig really deep to understand their problems and constraints, we will - if we play our cards right - uncover things that we didn’t even know we didn’t even know. This is where the real gold dust of innovation is hiding.

By understanding our customers better than anyone else on the planet, we are able to bring that knowledge back to our teams and use as a starting point for ideation, prototyping, experimenting and innovating.

Is that it? Well, kind of! But remember, processes and tools mean nothing without the right mindset. And the right mindset means nothing without a lot of real world practice. If you want to become great at skiing, playing the violin, or anything else for that matter, you have to practice a lot. It’s the same with innovation, which begs the question - are you willing to put in the hours, are you in it for the long-run?

Andy Cars, Lean Startup coach and founder of Lean Ventures

Watch the video - The Innovation Mindset

The video also contains the stories of Alex Honnold, the world's greatest free climber, and how Burger King grabbed market share from McDonalds in Japan by making black burgers.

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