Too often when entrepreneurs think about innovating, they fall into a common trap: they start at the end.

It's natural to think about innovation through the lens of the things you hope it will produce --products and services imbued with value that sell. But innovation is something bigger than its outputs. And to understand it and more importantly to be successful at it, you need to look at innovation from its beginning. It's the only way to avoid the trap.

At the root of innovation is something more fundamental: creativity. Creativity isn't a formula. It's a mindset. To be able to put that mindset to productive use takes practice, experimentation, and a willingness to come to the edge of what we know and consider what might yet be. When we are in the practice of cultivating this mindset, it's far more likely that innovations, that is tangible outputs with value, will result. Five habits help fine tune this mindset and increase the odds of success.

These habits appear across innovators and take different forms. But their basic thrust is the same. MacArthur Fellow education reformer Deborah Meier has crafted a simple, effective, and memorable way of describing them, one any innovator in any sector can benefit from. She calls it the Five Habits of the Mind, and they boil down to asking yourself five questions.

1. How do we know what we know?

Whenever Deborah and her teams are pursuing a new idea, working through a sticking point, or even bringing a new player into a team (all inflection point where innovation can take place), they begin by asking this: How do we know what we know? It's a simple thing on the surface. But within this question lies an invitation rarely extended - to examine what we think, why we do what we do, and to confirm the relevance and value of both.

2. Is there a pattern?

That first habit is the opener. Literally. It opens everything up to examination. That's one reason why the second habit and question is so important: Is there a pattern? This second habit helps us sift and filter. Part of the reason we are so reluctant to question our assumptions is our fear that in doing so we'll unhinge everything around us - our processes, our roles, our success. But if there's a pattern in what we see, be it an opportunity or a problem, fear of change quickly slips away as an excuse to ignore what we see.

3. What if...?

Disruptive as opening up may be to our thinking and ways of doing, previously unseen patterns are the very source of new ideas that lead to new innovations. That's exactly why the third habit is some form of the question: What if... ? With this habit of the mind we invite play and experimentation, further muting fear. It's this third habit that lets us begin to leverage the patterns and draw out new value.

4. Is there another way of looking at it?

The fourth habit is a simple habit, but a vital gut check: asking Is there another way of looking at it? While it may initially seem a duplication of what the first habit enables, instead it's more like holding up a mirror. The fourth habit pushes us to challenge our new and brilliant ideas and even to open up to the possibility that better ways might still found.

5. Who cares?

Deborah's fifth habit of the mind brings it all home and brings us back to why we even seek to innovate in the first place: Who cares? The importance of this question is so obvious as to be ignored. It's remarkably easy to get caught up in our own brilliance and forget that if our idea doesn't matter to others, it's hardly an innovation with impact.

Five simple habits feed not just a single innovative output, but a mindset of innovation ongoing. It's no accident that the habits are questions. They're meant to be pursued continuously, not end with a single answer or innovation. It's that mindset of perpetual innovation that dramatically raises the odds of success - and keeps us out of the innovation trap.

Published on: Jun 6, 2017