One afternoon in Oregon, apparently in 2006, artist Eric Singer contemplated a piece of orange Madrone wood from his neighbor's yard and had an "Aha!" moment. Why not combine wood and sunglasses? He hand-carved his first pair of frames, added a couple of rusty hinges and some cheap lenses, and wore his odd new glasses everywhere, I've read. He received so many requests he started carving frames, from the back of his car. Today Shwood glasses are so popular the company just won Dell's America's Favorite Small Business contest. Singer continues to innovate—now using not only exotic woods to make the frames, but also wood laminated from broken skateboard decks.
This kind of ingenuity drives small businesses everywhere, and sometimes leads to big successes. Ted Turner and Richard Branson fit the stereotype of the individualist who has a wild idea, pursues it, and makes millions. But you don't need an outsized personality to be a successful entrepreneur. You should create opportunities by recognizing other people's needs that so far no one else has identified—and then finding a way to fulfill and market your solutions. Fortunately, your brain is built to be creative.
Truly innovative thinking happens differently for different people. For you, it may happen in a "Eureka!" moment (like Einstein's theory of relativity), or it may take years of trial and error and painstaking research (Gregor Mendel discovering genetics).
- If you are a right-brained type who enjoys mental leaps, you may have had a great idea while you were making pancakes or washing your face.
- If you are a left-brained thinker who prefers research, you may have come to your most creative conclusions after studying your data.
Research reveals that for either type, the brain does a lot of preparatory thinking. In one study, volunteers were given word puzzles as their brains were scanned. The left-brained thinkers used methodical reasoning to reach their conclusions. Often right-brained thinkers had an "aha!" moment when they realized an answer, but they could not explain how they got it. It turns out during the "blank" period while the right brain wanders, it is actually performing complex problem-solving just under the surface of our awareness. One study was able to predict who would solve a problem with an "Aha!" insight by detecting neural activity in the right front cortex up to eight seconds before the answer actually dawned.
Here's five tips to stoke your own innovation and creativity:
By knowing your thinking and behavior styles, you can get creative by asking yourself questions that are appropriate for your brain. Use questions for other thinking types to stimulate innovation that does not come as naturally to you.
1. If you're an analytical entrepreneur, you might ask: 'How could I design a system for this?' Mark Zuckerberg was one of the first to recognize the desire for college students to contact each other. Although his business is "social," he constantly analyzes and innovates ways to grow and monetize Facebook. Given last week's IPO-filing news and 845 million users worldwide…I think we can see how that turned out.
2. Structural entrepreneurs ought to ask, 'How could I organize this?' Henry Ford wanted to produce an affordable car, and probably used "structural" thinking when he built the first factories based on assembly lines. In 1908 he produced the Model T and revolutionized mass production. Over 100 years later, Ford Motor Company is #10 on the Fortune 500 list.
3. Social entrepreneurs should raise the question, 'How can I affect people?' The chairman of Panera Bread, Ronald Shaich, started a quiet revolution in the food industry when he opened the chain's first non-profit restaurant. A sign reads, "Take what you need. Leave your fair share." People can eat for free, they can pay the regular price, or they can pay extra. The restaurant made enough to stay open, and Panera opened others like it. The company has thrived over the past three years; its stock price more than quadrupled since 2008.
4. I'd suggest conceptual entrepreneurs lean toward, 'How can I make this beautiful?' Silicon Valley titan Steve Jobs created an iMac computer in 2002 that he said "should look like a sunflower." For many years the company's motto was "Think Different." Jobs merged his love of calligraphy and music with his computer genius to create products people never knew they needed like iPhones, iPods, and iPads. Apple is now the world's biggest computer maker.
What kind of entrepreneur are you? If you're a logical, methodical thinker, give yourself time to process data and reach new conclusions. If you're intuitive and insightful, give yourself time to daydream and do activities that do not look like "work."
5. Finally, take a look at your behavioral tendencies. You want to effectively take your ideas from your brain to the production line. Use your innate expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility to communicate your ideas, build upon them, and keep abreast of their development. After that…it's time to innovate something new!