Differentiate. It's what we're all looking to do as entrepreneurs. It's a game-changer. It ups the ante of our startup's value proposition, and it pushes our offering through to the next level.

The question is how. How can we twist the kaleidoscope in such a way that we see something about our industry that hasn't been seen before? How do we find the secret sauce of differential creativity?

There are plenty of clever tricks out there, but here's one that works for me, every time I'm looking for this kind of inspiration: Read books that advocate for exactly the opposite of what I'm trying to do.

That's completely counter-intuitive, you might say, and you'd be right. But thinking in new directions is what yields differentiation, practically by definition. Thinking counter-intuitively is, in fact, the goal.

The first time this year that I turned to this method, I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. For someone who runs a technology company that relies on social media as a resource, as I do, that book is essentially iconoclastic. It made me very, very uncomfortable. If people actually followed even 50 percent of Lanier's advice, my business would be in serious trouble.

Which is precisely why I read it.

I need to understand the arguments and why they're persuasive (or not). I need to put myself in the shoes of people who think contrary to how my business is organized, and empathize with their behavior. Most of all, I need to know enough about an "alternative" (for me) way of thinking, so that I can anticipate my clients' experience and be prepared for when it happens to them.

Lanier's book, despite its message that runs counter to my objectives as an entrepreneur, fueled and fertilized a string of ideas that we've been incorporating into the evolution of our brand.

Which brings me to the second time this year that a similar thing has happened, this time with a book that's being released today called Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, by Ann Mei Chang, a leading advocate for social innovation with the chops of over 20 years of engineering experience at companies such as Google, Apple and Intuit

Chang shifted career trajectories dramatically -- it is no mean feat to move from success at Google to success as chief innovation officer at non-profit organizations like USAID and Mercy Corps. Yet that career shift, and her constant think-like-an-engineer mentality, are significant variables that skew the likelihood of my trusting her business instincts. (That, and the fact that the day I met her in Washington DC, she had just come from speaking at the same conference where IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde was speaking.)

And that's the irony. Chang's mission with Lean Impact is to radically improve social good; my business isn't "set up" to improve social good, radically or otherwise. Yet, just like Lanier's "iconoclastic" book fueled and fertilized a string of ideas that improved my business, Chang's book dares readers to think counter-intuitively, and counter to "how things have always been run."

Because that's where the heart of differentiation beats.

Here are three takeaways from Lean Impact, and Chang herself, that fuel breakthrough ideas. The secret? The takeaways work whether profit or social good is your end goal.

1. Do the math. No, really. Do the math.

Chang is an engineer, and it's that mentality of basic math and engineering principles that steer the trajectory of innovating for social good. "Take the number of people you are reaching and divide by the number of people who have the same need," she said. "Too often that fraction ended up being infinitesimal." So she goes back to the most basic questions of does it work? And, how will we move the needle sufficiently to make a difference?

2. Delivering social impact is the new norm.

I'll never be able to loan out my copy of Lean Impact to anyone else, because I was inspired to take so many notes in the margins of how to apply Chang's ideas to my own business. Were entrepreneurs part of her target audience? Absolutely, she said. "As social impact becomes more and more a factor in every business, I hope that delivering impact will become the normal expectation for entrepreneurs."

3. New concepts = new thinking.

As I read Lean Impact, I kept a running list of concepts and vocabulary words that I understood better, that also inspired ideas for my own business. These include: Moore's law, proximate, microfranchising, de-risked, social gerrymandering, pioneer gap, fail faire and hybrid gap. Are they unfamiliar to you too? All the more reason to dive into Lean Impact and tease out ways to differentiate your business.

Published on: Oct 30, 2018