This article was written by guest author Brian Ardinger, Nelnet’s director of innovation and founder of Inside Outside.
Innovation is not a step-by-step, linear process. It’s more like the process of digging around a cave looking for treasure. It’s dark and unknown. Some caves have treasure. Some don’t. There could be dangers or great rewards. But the only way to know for sure is to enter and experiment your way through the darkness.
Your job as an innovator is to make decisions in unknown, uncertain, and ever-changing environments. It starts with exploration. Exploration is where you gather ideas, insights, and inputs. It is where you learn new things, unlearn old things, research, and find patterns. Exploration finds the seeds of ideas. The more seeds you find, the more ideas you can test, try, and eventually grow.
In times of change and uncertainty, it is necessary to draw upon a broader and more accelerated flow of information and place yourself in uncomfortable environments that force you to grow. Innovation begins with seeing things differently, asking questions, being curious to learn (and unlearn), and adapting your thinking and actions to a changing unknown landscape.
Let’s take a look at a few ways to accelerate your exploration efforts.
Follow the Path of Curiosity
When the world is unknown and uncertain, you have to explore. Read more. Seek out information. Ask questions — lots and lots of questions. Explore to make connections. Become comfortable with seeking out new voices. Become a learning machine.
The best way to begin to feel comfortable in the messiness is to build the muscles of curiosity. This muscle starts with a willingness to explore new subjects, ideas, and areas of knowledge. The easiest way to begin is to start reading, watching, and participating in areas in which you’re curious.
Why is curiosity so critical to innovation? Curiosity instills creativity, promotes collaboration, and is a crucial ingredient to exploration. Curiosity is also unlimited. It’s always just a question away. Curiosity is a pull towards the new and next.
Seek Out New Voices
Expose yourself to a variety of voices, experiences, and actions. Over the years, I began collecting and curating over 500 newsletters, RSS feeds, forums, and other online resources for the weekly InsideOutside.io newsletter I publish focused on talent, technology, and innovation. I begin the first 30 minutes of each day scanning these new voices looking for interesting things that pique my curiosity. I use this to prime the pump for what’s new and next. I’m constantly adding new voices to the mixes of resources I review. I seek out new podcasts, newsletters, blogs, documentaries, meet-ups, and online groups. I’m a huge advocate of using tools like Twitter to follow various streams of conversations.
I have amplified the practice by sharing what I find with others. This daily curation has been a massive help to my cultivation of the curiosity muscle. It has turned into a way to engage new people and voices and to continue building.
A simple start to curating new voices and inputs is, to begin with, a 3-3-3 approach:
- Choose three sources inside your industry to follow.
- Choose another three adjacent to your industry and three outside your sector.
- Reevaluate and add or change the sources in these three categories each quarter.
Over time, you’ll begin to develop your go-to resources to speed up your learning and keep you fresh for new insights.
Seek Out New Experiences
In addition to new voices, it’s essential to seek out new experiences. The simple act of experiencing new things has a dramatically different effect than just reading or learning about them. So make it a point to push yourself into new activities. Traveling to new places, eating new foods, listening to new music, connecting with new friends, teaching new skills, and building new projects are a few of the ways to amp up your experience game.
The best way to feed curiosity and the exploration engine is to engage with new people, new places, and new perspectives — exposure to the new and novel acts like a curiosity fertilizer.
Ask a Lot of Questions
To execute on innovation, you must reengage with that sense of wonder you had as a child. Instead of saying something won’t work, ask the question, “What happens if it does work?” or “How might it work?” You have to embrace the awkwardness of asking the questions, “What if?” and “Why not?” Curious people ask questions that start with how, what, when, where, and why. Stay away from the basic yes and no answer and be open to where questions can lead you. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.”
Sharpening your questioning skills builds your curiosity muscle and accelerates your learning and understanding in unknown environments. Questioning opens you up to more alternatives. The answers lead you to other questions and other options to consider.
Look for luck. Be proactive at identifying intersections, patterns, and connections. My friend Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Good Luck, talks about the intentional actions to increase the surface area of luck. You can do this by creating unexpected opportunities to connect the dots with others. Hang out with interesting people. Join forums and meet-ups where your interests overlap (Ex: art and technology).
Make Time for Learning
As you build your curiosity muscle, you should start falling into the exploration mode more often. I find it helpful to block time for curiosity endeavors as well. Take intentional pauses to reflect. Block time to think and for random collisions to happen. This exploration time gives you the permission and ability to focus on doing something that might not be immediately valuable. Typically the nuggets you begin to find during this time become building blocks to more direct value creation later. Set aside 1-day a week (20%) for learning and exploring. Sneak it into your daily routine. Explore the areas that excite and entertain you. How can these collisions of knowledge and networks begin to give you clarity into the current problems?
Explore the Pain
Some of the best places to find ideas are looking for problems and the people who have them. Talking to customers about their issues is an overlooked and underutilized tactic for finding innovative ideas. Customer conversations and market research focused on discovering pain points are a great way to find ideas that can become innovations.
Learn to Unlearn
The problem with most folks is not learning, but unlearning. In every aspect of your life, you are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete. The more success we achieve, the more likely we will fall into the pattern of doing the things that achieved this success in the first place. This works great in an environment with few changes and more certainty. However, when the environment is dynamic, we can rely on old skills and old maps that no longer deliver the same results.
To embrace the new ways of value creation, we have to unlearn the old ones. Many old models have been built on incremental change, not exponential. When change is exponential, incremental models will not be able to keep pace. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Beware of Old Maps
The more we become successful at something, the more we continue to do the same things that got us there in the first place. Old maps can serve you well in stable environments (sports, games, etc.) but are challenging in changing settings. What worked yesterday is unlikely to continue to work forever. Living your life under old maps and old assumptions is a recipe for being disrupted. We have to be conscious of old maps becoming old habits that don’t serve the current environment.
Wonder the Cave
Every new venture, project, or business can feel like you’re entering a dark cave without a map. To get to the other side, you have to enter the cave and get exploring. Feel your way through. Make some wrong turns. Exit the cave and find another one to try. The point is you can’t get to the other side by standing outside the cave and not exploring.
In the end, innovation is about seeing the world differently and solving practical problems that need to be solved. It begins with developing a culture of learning and unlearning. It begins with exploration.