So you want to be an innovator?
Innovation can mean an edge for your business, a breakthrough cure you might need someday, a significant improvement in quality of life: lots of things people need and want. The most significant innovators are frequently treated as heroes. That's nice too.
But where do you begin? Start with these five essentials.
First: Question everything. Never stop improving.
This is not a call to "dream big dreams" (though that's obviously essential). This is about questioning all of your presuppositions, especially the ones you don't even realize you presuppose.
Nothing is more built into the DNA of most companies than meetings: meetings, meetings preliminary to meetings, meetings about meetings. But at PayPal, meetings were frowned upon: our COO David Sacks (since then the producer of Thank You For Smoking and the founder of Yammer) would actually walk into anything he thought looked like a meeting, listen for a few minutes, and then disband it if it wasn't obviously productive.
We were in a race, against bigger competitors, against regulators, against time. There were more efficient ways to do almost everything than have a meeting, and Sacks knew time was the one thing we absolutely did not have to waste.
Putting a computer on every desk--as opposed to a terminal connected to a mainframe--was a radical idea once. Putting shows like House of Cards online rather than on one of the three broadcast networks or even an established cable channel sounded insane just a few years ago (in fact, when Fox debuted, the conventional wisdom was that it would inevitably fail because "no one could ever want more than three networks"). Scurvy killed thousands of sailors for centuries: rethinking their diet a bit banished that disease forever.
But citrus and scurvy uniquely illustrate the point. The Royal Navy resisted that dietary change for decades. Thousands died for no reason better than inertia.
Bureaucracies resist change. Too often, individuals do too, sometimes without even realizing it.
Question everything you're doing. Ask why you do it, and why you do it the way you do it. There is always room for improvement.
Second: Effort counts, but focus on the desired result.
Effort is essential. And effort is required for results. Franklin Chang Diaz started work on his VASIMR engine in the mid 1970s: NASA is just beginning to test it now. All-nighters are staples of the college experience and startup culture alike.
But it's easy to get lost in all the things you're doing and mistake your effort for results. "Look at all the stuff I did today," you'll say. But how much of it got you closer to your goal?
This is bad enough with just one person. But the more bureaucratic your organization, the greater the tendency to get this wrong.
Take education. We are constantly told that schools need more money, and surely some do. But how well are they spending what they have? In 2012, 2/3 of Wisconsin 8th graders couldn't read at grade level. The number was 79% in Chicago.
If your car only worked 21% of the time, could its manufacturer stay in business? Should it?
Bureaucracies--governments, unions, too many companies--focus on inputs rather than outcomes. Successful innovators focus on the desired result and make the resources available work.
Focus on the results you're after. Make everything else serve that goal.
Third: Listen to everyone.
People and companies are frequently infected with "Not Invented Here" syndrome, the nasty twin of "We've always done it that way." Shed that right now.
Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty in the early days of World War I. Thinking about battleships, he came up with the idea for the tank. The world's armies did not. Indeed, at first, the Royal Army actively opposed the idea.
Twenty years before Pearl Harbor, Billy Mitchell proved--to the great consternation of his superiors--that air power could threaten and destroy fleets of ships. He was eventually court martialed and busted out of the service for his trouble.
Just because it doesn't fit your plans, or you didn't think of it first, doesn't make it wrong. In this as in everything, "pride goeth before a fall."
Fourth: Work to see all of the implications.
The fax was not just a better way to send a letter. The internet is not merely a better way to send a fax.
Cars and trucks didn't just replace buggies and wagons: they reordered society. Think of today's housing developments: winding streets, no stores or schools within walking distance. A society that walks or rides horses could not (and did not) afford such luxury. And those with enough foresight to grasp the change bought up lots of property around Interstate exits, long before most people saw any value in land so far from town.
Viagra was originally intended as a heart drug. The microwave oven was an accidental spin-off of radar experiments. Listerine started as a surgical antiseptic, and was later tried as a treatment for gonorrhea. Coca-Cola was invented to help overcome morphine addiction.
Most people will never see such possibilities. Until, that is, you show them.
Fifth: Study those who've gone before.
History is replete with examples you can profit by, a few of which I've just (briefly) recounted. Don't stop with those headlines. Understanding how successful people have innovated before you is the best way to learn how to break out of today's stifling orthodoxies and truly make a difference. It's also highly inspirational. You'll need a lot of inspiration if you want to succeed.
These are just a few things for your journey. But they're important things. Neglect them at your peril.