Innovation. Some companies don’t have any and need some. Others have some and want more. Surely everyone wants to be an innovator. Who wouldn’t want to produce innovation? It’s the modern-day professional currency that we trade in as programmers, designers, and managers.
What Does Innovation Mean?
I never know what people mean when they say innovation because I was never taught it in school. I decided to give it my own definition. I’m claiming innovation means, “a surprisingly creative invention that proves valuable.”
When I reflect on my work performance in 2014, I figure I was innovative five times. Was that enough? I hope so. Either way, I simply ran out of time.
Time is the Raw Material for Building Innovation
Innovating, for me, is a study in stealing. Stealing ideas? No! I’m stealing time. In my opinion, the profitable return of innovation comes from an investment of time. Time is a scarce resource and we generally don’t have enough of it.
Creativity and invention can’t be scheduled and prefer to happen at their own pace. They often occur around and between regularly assigned tasks. To make innovation happen, I steal time.
Stealing time from whom? Myself, because inspiration usually strikes at home, from my teammates as I ask them to cover daily tasks, and lastly from my managers as they purposefully organize project stories during iterations.
When I deliver something cool, life is good and high-fives are given. When discovery leads to dead-end there’s an empty, guilty feeling. We can steal time to create and invent, but is there a better way?
Learning, Solving Interesting Problems, and Sharing
Innovation seems to me to just be an outcome.
It’s what our leaders ask us to do at the end of the day. How do we get innovative? How do we know we’re doing it right? What are the practical tasks that lead to innovating work?
I break it down into a simple pattern: learn, solve interesting problems, and share.
It’s a virtuous cycle that directly improves you, offers value into someone’s life, and raises up the skills of all those around you. When others respond in kind, it makes you better.
How can you learn on the job or while pursuing your next job? Going back to school is out of the question for most people. It’s expensive and takes time. Formal training might not be crucial for a tech-related position. All the same, there are always new skills you need to pick up. Below are three great ways to continue learning.
Watching video recordings of conference talks is a fantastic way to take deep dives into the technology you know you need to learn. Many conference organizers host speaker videos on YouTube. Here are some examples:
Choose an hour each week to view a talk to level up your skill or prep for an interview. Leaders can do the same thing for their team. Gather your people to watch a video over lunch. Sharing a meal, and some enlightened thinking, are easy wins for bonding while experimenting with new ideas.
Self-Paced Online Coding Challenges
These sites challenge you to complete a programming exercise. Because they’re built to test your knowledge, you’ll find that they focus your spare time by igniting your competitive fire. Gain insights into particular aspects of computer science and learn from others by comparing solutions.
Follow the Influencers
Creators building leading software tools and libraries steer the tech world. Follow the makers of your favorite software on Twitter to learn from them. Read when they update their projects. See how they view the world as they discover new concepts.
Search out people actively building community for designers, product managers, and developers. Here are some people I enjoy reading:
Solving Interesting Problems
What interesting solutions are you finding? If your daily work feels routine, what can you do as an individual to get an exciting jolt of mental stimulation from completing a unique challenge? Hone your latest practices against solid, real-world problems. That’s when skills become your own.
Volunteer for Special Projects
If you’re at work, volunteer for special projects evaluating new technology. It doesn’t happen often, but when you hear about one raise your hand with an open attitude. You might be surprised that your teammates won’t show interest when they can’t imagine the intellectual reward. Be the first to say yes, but remember to bring back what you learned. Share something valuable with your team.
Block off an uninterrupted amount of time and run a hackathon for one. No need to hold yourself to the traditional 24-hour straight marathon. Set a fast pace to keep your ideas lean and your moves quick. Sometimes too much time brings too many ideas, and not enough execution.
Negotiate with loved ones if family obligations make you wonder if you can dedicate the days. Give yourself enough time that you can start and finish your hack. Convert your hobby project into an excellent portfolio piece that you can use as a conversation starter in your next job interview. Demonstrate that you’re a self-starter, engaged in your career, and passionate about learning.
Company leaders can use a hackathon to cultivate solutions for ongoing business problems or generate new opportunities. Think of structuring your staff by encouraging them to team up with folks they wouldn’t normally work with. Bring in a marketing person, or a product manager, with a designer and some programmers. Mix in QA. Break down silos and build up alliances.
Once you’ve gone away and learned something, it’s time to share. Why? Because serving others often makes the hard work of discovery easier. It’s worth investing in other people to build community while lifting up their level of quality.
Speak To a Group
Public speaking might be a challenge. Many people have a natural fear of presenting to a group. Take it from me that any audience showing up to hear you speak is more interested in learning from you than judging you.
There is no better way to become great at something than being on the hook for teaching it. Become the best student that you can and solidify your learning by guiding an audience through your expertise. Who should you talk to? Here are some ideas:
- Lunch 'n learns.
- A local professional group. Many are listed on Meetup.
- Regional or national conferences. See entries at Lanyrd.
Write an article summarizing something that you’ve learned, built, or discovered. Starting a blog is easier than you think. You can easily register and start self-publishing on WordPress, Medium, Tumblr, or Blogger.
Answer questions on Stack Overflow, Quora, or Twitter if writing an article feels like too much commitment.
These Are Ways to Innovate
Experiment with these suggestions as concrete ways to achieve innovation. Each requires giving or taking some time.
Individuals can take time from their own personal schedule to try them out. Company leaders should give time to their team by carving some out from their regular schedule.
Stay sharp and make all those around you better. Let’s do something awesome today!