Innovation traits that are vital now: Beginner's Mind

Innovation traits that are vital now: Beginner’s Mind

In the face of so much change and uncertainty during the COVID crisis, it is imperative that we do several things simultaneously and well.  First, as executives or managers, we need to find ways to cut costs and find somewhat stable footings for businesses.

With so much uncertainty and volatility, it can be hard to know when you’ve reached “bottom” and how to respond when the economy begins to grow again.  This is an important role, but not the only role.

Second, you should be asking about the best ways (and best people) to start innovating again.  Even before everything settles down and your business returns to some new normal, you want to start thinking about serving your customers and prospects in these new conditions.

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Competition for customers, fierce before COVID, will be even more cut-throat.  Companies are desperate to capture customers and market share, and to generate revenue, so new entrants will come into your space from unexpected quarters, and people who worked for large organizations previously will be opening new businesses to serve your customers.  Good innovation is more important than ever.

Who are your best innovators?

With innovation outputs at a premium, now is a good time to think about who your best innovators are, and how you can fully engage them to create new products, new services, new experiences and new business models that your customers will demand.

As I’ve explained previously, your “best” people – those who are really good at managing existing products and services, who are good at holding costs in line and doing things effectively and efficiently – will mostly be good at incremental innovation – small changes to existing products or services.

For new products and services, and to enter white spaces or confront new competitors, you need to find the best innovators, not the people who are best at managing day to day operations.

How do you identify the best innovators?  After a lot of reading, research and experience in the innovation space I wrote a short paper entitled The Unusual Suspects, which identifies key characteristics or traits of good innovators.

Good innovators in your organization are often found at the margins of the business.  They are people who have been dissatisfied with the status quo products and processes.  They are often considered dreamers or complainers.  Through my research and with some help from some psychologists, I identified a number of key traits and characteristics that can help you identify the people who are best at innovating.

In the next couple of posts, I’m going to tell you about some of the best characteristics for innovating.  Finding the people with these skills and characteristics and putting them in charge of new innovation is critical to your long term success.

Key Trait:  Beginner’s Mind

One of the most important traits we found when thinking about transformative and disruptive innovation is what has been labelled “beginner’s mind”.  This was a favourite topic of Steve Jobs, who adapted it from Buddhism.  The concept simply means that when confronted with a challenge or problem, we should examine it as if for the first time, or as a beginner, or even a child, would see the problem.

Too often, once you have experience in a setting or a field, you view problems and challenges within a framework or context based on your past experience.  This can create functional blindness, a lack of exploration or discovery based on the known and accepted constraints.

Converging around experience is reasonable if you want incremental innovation because experience will accept many of the past constraints and conditions and tell you what you can and cannot do.

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A beginner’s mind approach, on the other hand, looks at a problem with fresh eyes and fresh thinking.  It asks:  why does this problem exist?  What would happen if I could eliminate the problem or ignore the problem?  What are all the possible ways to solve the problem?  How might this problem become a solution or a component of another opportunity?

Beginner’s mind thinking starts expansively and explores all options.  To many executives, this approach seems to waste time when all we need is an incremental solution.  But to find the best options, the best new ideas, we need to explore the problem with fresh eyes and fresh thinking.

Why this approach is vital now

Beginner’s Mind is vital for disruptive innovation generally, but it is even more important in light of the COVID pandemic.  The reasons for this are obvious. First, there are relatively few people who have any expertise in a pandemic.  That’s why Dr Fauci is so comforting to so many people, but there are few Faucis.

Second, the people with any experience in a pandemic of this size and nature were people who lived through the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1919-1920.  They are mostly dead, and even if they were alive their expertise would be limited.

In fact, we have little expertise to draw on in this case, and much of the expertise we are using draws on examples from decades, if not centuries past.  That does not make the expertise wrong, simply points out how limited our expertise is.

Since beginner’s mind takes a “Fresh Look” approach, and since we have so little practical experience in recovery from pandemics of this size and nature, thinking about innovation from a beginner’s mind perspective is vital now.

Finding these people

OK, so let’s assume you accept the importance of beginner’s mind.  Where do you find these people?

First, you want to look internally.  Who are the people in your team who are often expanding the scope of a project, wanting to explore and discover more information about the problem before converging around a solution?

Who are people who constantly introduce new solutions to old problems that “might” be possible but for some reason just aren’t practical?  These people may possess beginner’s mind thinking.

Second, find people you trust from outside of your company, sector or industry.  The best innovators are often people who make connections or bring ideas or perspectives from different industries or even geographies.

Working with friends or consultants who don’t have a lot of experience in your industry – who aren’t afraid to ask “why do you do this” – who have expertise in thinking, in problem-solving and in innovation but may lack expertise in your field or industry – may inspire new thinking.

Ask your prospects or the people who could acquire your product or service but don’t.  Asking your customers about new realities when they are still dealing with change and know and trust your products isn’t helpful.

Go talk to people who don’t use your product or service, or who don’t use any of the products or services that your industry provides.  What are they inventing?  How are they operating?

Ask yourself – what might a new and somewhat hungry entrepreneur with no experience in this industry do?  Because that’s happening right now.  People are going to start new businesses and provide services and products to customers based on what they think customers need, regardless of their knowledge or experience in a market.

What would you do if you were a new entrepreneur seeking to enter your industry or sector, especially one with little or nothing to lose?

Successful digital transformation is a matter of knowledge and access to the best talent. We connect you to both.Click for more.

If you need help

If you need help, contact me.  I’ve worked in the innovation space for over 15 years, in a range of industries (financial services, health care, medical device, household appliances, high tech, insurance, the DoD, etc) on a wide variety of products and services.

I’ve helped identify people within corporations who can provide beginner’s mind insights, and helped find people outside to provide this insight as well.

Read the Unusual Suspects paper to learn more about beginner’s mind and other traits I’ll be reviewing in the next few days.

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