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What style of innovator are you?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about innovation. Design thinking. Where new ideas come from. What really is a new idea? There are many concepts, mental models, tips, and strategies used by the biggest thinkers to create new things. From each of them, I take a little piece, try it on for size, roll it around in my brain and see how it fits my needs for a while. See, I think it’s less about the “tool” or the “process” and more about how you use it to challenge your thinking.

Picking up Adam Grant’s latest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World made one thing many have touched the edges of very clear. Innovations either come from a big idea for a specific solution or by identifying a problem but having no clear solution to start. And the two approaches are vastly different.

  1. CONCEPTUAL: Formulate a big idea and set out to execute it. This is more “scientific,” beginning with a hypothesis and developing it to see if it will stick. Example: Could we sell shoes online?

  2. EXPERIMENTAL: Solve big problems through trial and error, observation, learning, and evolving. This approach is more “experiential” as the solution takes shape with new observations of life along the way. Example: How do we make the painful 30-year-old mortgage application process more on-demand and user-centric to meet the needs of Millennial home buyers?

Both types of innovation have a huge place in our world. The first, conceptual, might get the answer faster—once that new idea is formulated the task is to prove it out, which can happen quickly. The risk, and enemy, of conceptual innovation, is becoming trapped by your original early ideas. When you have a hammer, everything is a nail.

The angst of experimental innovation can mean years of iteration, prototyping, observing new insights and asking “how might we” with every new twist. Maybe it’s not actually a mortgage application but an entirely new financial model? Innovators of this mindset learn from what they discover through customer observation—and that is decidedly fluid. Iterative, immersive, and unpredictable. The benefit? The more you observe and experiment, the less constrained you will be by your own ideas of the past. That is if you can truly stay open to what you observe and experience.

So, for incremental improvements to a business model or to improve a current competitive advantage, conceptual innovation may get you there faster. But for innovation that stretches beyond current thinking, and doesn’t reproduce or reiterate past ideas, experimental innovation opens us up to truly new ideas. It just takes a little longer and requires more discipline. I’m making it a point to be conscious of which to apply, when. Try it!

Read Adam Grant’s book for the full story and more. Or watch his TED Talk in my hometown of Vancouver here.

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