How Anyone Can Become More Innovative

(Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)
(Photo: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr)

Disruption seems to be everywhere these days, courtesy of Uber, Airbnb, and their startup brethren. The opportunities are exciting, but as the pace of change accelerates, there’s only one playbook for both companies and individuals to avoid obsolescence: embrace innovation and keep moving forward. Of course, innovation wasn’t taught in school, so many professionals assume you can only become “qualified” to innovate if you’re a professor or researcher or programming genius. But in the course of researching my new book I’ve come to believe that anyone can become more innovative–and, in fact, it’s a skill that will become increasingly essential moving forward. The ability to innovate and reinvent ourselves is the ultimate form of career insurance.

Indeed, some of the most innovative thinking actually stems from one’s own life and unique experiences. Stuart Crainer, a co-founder of the biennial Thinkers50 ranking of the world’s most influential business thought leaders, told me that they see particularly fresh insights from thinkers with eclectic backgrounds, such as Wharton professor Adam Grant, who worked as a magician; Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD, who is a psychiatrist by training; and celebrated yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, who gained fame boating solo around the world and has reinvented herself as a business theorist.

For Rose Shuman, it was a jarring personal experience that set her on her life course. When she was eighteen, she took a family trip to visit her stepmom’s relatives in Nicaragua. “It was such a jolt to be there, a few years after the Contra War had finished,” she says. “It was not in good condition at the time; they had one street signal in the entire country. Growing up in suburban Maryland, it was more than I was equipped to deal with in terms of making sense of things.” That trip introduced her to international development, and after college, she made it her career.

She was the director of business development for a UK-based social enterprise that specialized in high-tech eyeglasses aimed at the developing world. More than a billion people worldwide don’t have access to an optometrist; Shuman was spending enormous amounts of time in the field, trying to figure out how best to reach them.

One afternoon, she started brainstorming on a related theme: how could you bring the Internet to those same people? We’ve all heard about the promise of laptops for the poor. But Shuman knew from her travels that still left many who could likely never take advantage of the technology. “First, they have to learn to read,” she says. “Then they need electricity, and to be able to keep their computer in a safe place, and to have an Internet connection. They need to learn to use the computer, and it has to be in a language they know, which there’s probably not much of on the Internet—so they’d have to learn a new language. And then they’d have to browse, and maybe something good will happen. That’s an enormous number of steps. So how do you collapse and get rid of those steps?”

She spent about four hours hashing out an idea in her notebook, inspired by the public call boxes you might see on a university campus or at a transit station. What if people could connect through a call box with someone who spoke their local language and was sitting in front of a computer, ready to look things up and answer questions? “The last connection would be through voice, so people would never even have to grasp the abstract concept of the Internet,” says Shuman. “But you could bring the benefits of it to them right away.”

That was the beginning of the Question Box project, a nonprofit initiative now operating in India and sub-Saharan Africa. “It took four hours to conceptualize, and seven years to implement and execute,” she says. In the process, she’s been named a TED fellow and now lectures at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Users—ranging from students to farmers to orphaned children—ask any question they like, from “Who is the richest man in the world?” to agricultural commodity prices. Shuman’s favorite question, she says, was “Did the pyramids ever move?” Fundamentally, she says, the Question Box is a “livelihood enhancement device”—a way to bring the promise of the Internet, and the world’s information, to people who would otherwise be shut out.

In the face of innovation, outsiders often wonder: It must have taken a genius to have come up with something like that! Of course, Shuman and the other thought leaders are all smart people, but developing an innovative idea doesn’t require genius. What’s required are skills that many professionals already have—the ability to ask good questions, to challenge assumptions, and to listen to your gut instinct that alerts you when the rest of the world is overlooking something.

Because of your unique experiences, you already see things differently from anyone else. Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and let it suggest new ideas and directions for your work. If you really look, and really listen, you can see things in a new way.

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook and follow her on Twitter.

How Anyone Can Become More Innovative