Innovate. What a loaded word. It gets people excited when they hear it. But why? What is it about the word “innovate” that stirs something up inside us? What does it even mean?
It is certainly an overused word nowadays. I was recently in Pomona, California and took a visit to the Cal Poly university campus. The word was everywhere. Innovation Way ran north/south on the side of campus. The campus brewery, Innovation Brew Works, greeted me as I walked in. Every sign on every light pole had some form of the word innovate.
If they were trying to inspire innovation by repetition, they nailed it. But saying “hey you, go innovate” isn’t enough. What do we mean when we say innovate?
Simply put, to innovate means to make changes by introducing something new.
That definition is pretty vague. Were Lewis and Clark innovating on their quest for manifest destiny? Absolutely. What about when Starbucks introduced the pumpkin spice latte? Oh yeah. The invention of text messaging? Yup.
These are all examples of some world changing innovations. But why are they considered innovations?
Lewis and Clark changed the world by exploring the land from the Louisiana Purchase and by discovering that the US did in fact touch the Pacific Ocean. They made detailed maps about the Pacific Northwest that nobody had ever seen before. To society at the time, the world might as well have stopped at the Mississippi river.
They innovated by introducing a map nobody had ever seen.
In 2003, Starbucks changed all our lives by introducing the pumpkin spice latte. Coffee had been around for a long time, but we weren’t drinking anything that tasted like pumpkin. They saw an opportunity and seized it. Starbucks ended up selling over 200 million cups between 2003 and 2015.
They innovated by introducing a flavor we didn’t know we loved.
When Neil Papworth wanted a quick way to send a message to his friend in England in 1992, he found a way to send the text “Merry Christmas” from his computer to a cell phone. I think we all know what became of that one.
He innovated by solving a problem that had never been solved before.
An innovative idea does not have to be as big as manifest destiny, pumpkin spice lattes, or text messaging. But what it does have to be is unique. At the very definition, innovation is something that hasn’t been done before.
Let’s talk about some different types of innovation. You can have a product that is innovative, or you can have a process that is innovative. Sometimes you can have both, but more often than not, you will land in either the product or process category.
Based on the innovation type, your target audience will be different. Software is the perfect example of the two types of innovation.
Imagine you made a new social media site. Your site uses augmented reality to show someone’s profile above their head when you point your phone at them. What you have here, is a pretty innovative product on your hands. The general public is going to recognize your innovation.
All the frameworks, programming languages, sensors, and patterns that assembled your site are already clearly defined and have been used a thousand times by other companies. You do not have an innovative app building process. It’s tried and true, and that’s ok because you have your innovative product. Developers are not going to recognize any innovation.
You have innovated for consumers.
On the other side, if you make a new social media page that looks and feels like Facebook, you don’t have an innovative product. You have a web page that everyone is used to with different logos and branding. The general public is not going to recognize any innovation. Nothing is going to draw your customers in.
But if you had come up with a way to build that social media page in 1/10th the time it normally takes, you might have an innovative new process. Maybe you came up with a new design pattern that handles bindings in the UI for you automatically. Maybe you invented a way to generate GraphQL queries based on the labels of controls on a page. Developers will recognize your innovation.
You have innovated for producers.
Start by thinking about your skills. What skills do you have that can improve the world? What is your expertise? What do you like? You know more about something than anybody else.
Are you able to take an idea that exists out there today and make it your own? How are you able to provide a unique experience to the public? Do you have the next pumpkin spice latte? What game show have you not seen on TV yet? Why isn’t there a way to do X easier?
What about processes? What programming challenges do you face that can be solved with a new language, design pattern, or paradigm? Rust is a programming language that was introduced in 2015 and is now one of the fastest growing languages out there. There is still opportunity to make an impact in the world of technology.
Don’t limit your thinking to technology. Is there a way you can expedite manufacturing lines? What about a new way to board planes? Think about things that affect your life that could be made easier.
Still from The Office
While the word innovate might be starting to lose some of its potency, the potential to change the world is at an all time high. Everybody wants to make an impact, so do it.
Will you be the next Bill Gates? Will you come up with the next USB? You will never know unless you get started. Start thinking about what frustrates you. What can you do to make that easier for everyone? What can you build that will change the world?
The world is ready to see what you build.