It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur, strictly speaking in terms of our current business culture and social acceptance.
Startups are a touchpoint of economic policies, a catalyst for local Meetups, a focus of academic programs, and a frequent topic of frenzied media speculation. Entrepreneurship is a contemporary business zeitgeist. It’s in vogue to say you are an Entrepreneur.
But, despite all the conferences and festivals and launching of accelerators with endless lists of mentors, to really be an entrepreneur -- or a leader within an entrepreneurial organization -- you’ll need to grapple with the truly big, existential issue, the one that fuels your sleepless nights. And, no, it’s not, “How am I going to pay the developers?”
Real entrepreneurs have a gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing obsession with innovation.
“Innovation” in this case references the way you build a methodology, a practice, a business model around a Big Idea. Yet, how do you know what’s innovative? How do you nurture, fund and grow it?
The author Pagan Kennedy suggests an entrepreneurial leader first needs to focus on the process of Invention. At the core of an innovative enterprise is a need for continuous invention.
Can the process of invention be learned? Can it be taught? Are there methods or best practices to promote creative exploration? And, what impact can invention have on our economy and our lives? These are questions posed by Kennedy in her book, “Inventology: How we dream up things that change the world.”
For those who are busy running their empire and don’t have time to read it -- although I strongly recommend it for stimulating the creative juices -- I’m offering you this short review. Consider how you might adopt one or more of these concepts within your own enterprise. Think about how it might inform your strategic planning.
Five kinds of imaginations
Kennedy suggests that by examining a typical source of imagination, it may be possible to stimulate future creativity and enterprise success.
To uncover your next market-defining breakthrough, reflect on the five types of imaginations profiled in Inventology and think about how you might apply that technique within your company or team. Consider how well each type of imagination might fit with your core competencies, timing, appetite for risk, and relationship with your various audiences.
1. Problem finding
In this common scenario, invention is born of frustration with the current situation. A hidden problem or pain point is identified. Often, it can be a concept that affects huge numbers of people.
This type of imagination, however, may involve a long development cycle as it waits for market adoption to catch up to its unique solution. As an example, Kennedy cites Twitter, a technology that was developed years in advance of its current widespread acceptance. The company had to wait for the market to catch up to its breakthrough.
A problem finding scenario also needs essential market feedback about its ideas. It requires access to its community through open channels, forums, and dialogues.
This type of imagination appears to be based on serendipity, a lucky observance, a happy accident, although it’s really much more deliberate. It requires large amounts of data to sift through in order to identify a tiny nugget of discovery. Within the randomness, lies the opportunity to discover patterns and eureka moments.
Promoting invention through discovery requires a team with keen observation skills. The rise of bioinformatics and data mining are two current areas Pagan cites that apply techniques of discovery to prompt invention.
Yes, says Kennedy, you can use science fiction as a legitimate source of inspiration for your product development. With this type of imagination, you rely heavily on dreaming and imagining the possibilities and the potential. Go ahead and use this as rationale to watch your favorite Star Trek or Matrix movie . . again.
If you read Inventology, you’ll learn about a group of engineers in northern California in the late 1960s who subscribed to the use of creativity-enhancing additives to dream up their highly successful inventions.
Whatever legal accelerant you use, the Prophecy source of imagination demands freedom to think, brainstorm and predict. For technology companies, the freedom to apply Moore’s Law to stretch the imagination -- for example, to predict the size of computer components -- opened up the possibilities for how they could be used.
4. Connecting ideas
Recognizing that sometimes great ideas come from outside an organization’s boundaries, Kennedy describes “zones of permission” in open systems. This scenario creates opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas precisely because of differing experiences or exposure within a different environment. Creating safe areas to connect outsiders with problems can stimulate invention. Kennedy compares it to “crowd-solving.”
For companies synching their strategy with a loyal customer base, this source of inspiration should prove crucial to fostering great ideas.
Finally, Kennedy describes pedagogical attempts to teach invention as a way to ensure its continuity and progress. While some methods of analysis dated back to the Sputnik era, others were more modern and included open labs, hackerspaces and makerspaces. The emphasis in these situations is hands-on creativity and tinkering to stimulate the thinking process. Lately, this technique has been used frequently in educational settings at all levels to encourage invention.
Putting theory into action
Given that barriers to invention are falling, Kennedy is optimistic that our society is on the cusp of changing the way we invent and create. Resources such as tools of production, subject matter experts, and funding are all more accessible now through things like 3-D printers, real time global communication, and crowdfunding, she says. Other methods of connecting valuable resources are very likely to be invented soon . . . if not already.
Aligning these factors will improve the probability of new discoveries. As a result, the evolutionary pace of startups -- and entrepreneurial endeavors within existing companies -- may continue to quicken. Business leaders who embrace and foster the new speed of invention hold the key to opening up opportunities and markets.
To stimulate your own process of invention, I've outlined seven steps for entrepreneurs to incorporate into their strategic planning:
- Commit to fostering the process of invention as a way to ensure your company’s continued viability. Invent, or else.
- Allow yourself and your team the physical and metaphysical space to get creative -- including the space in your schedule and your mind.
- Pick the source of imagination that fits best with your company values, resources, skills and brand identity. You may find one or two sources of imagination are a better fit than others.
- Embrace failure and mistakes as a learning opportunity and chance for discovery.
- Stay positive and patient. Breakthrough inventions take time.
- Seek input and feedback – both internal and external -- because inventing often needs to be a dialogue between your market and your team.
- Repeat step # 1. Invention is a never-ending process.
Great entrepreneurs and visionaries are often described as passionate and committed. They are the mental grapplers, the champions of invention, the ones obsessed with problems long before solutions are found. As Kennedy writes, “Inventing… can be a form of civic engagement. When we notice a problem in the designed environment, we have an obligation to speak out and participate in improving it.”
Entrepreneurs -- those sleep-deprived, angst-ridden souls -- know what I’m talking about. May the inventing begin.