I’ll admit it: I am not an innovator. Not an easy thing to confess these days, when innovators are the ones getting all the attention. Oh, I’ve had some great ideas and seen them through to fruition, and I’ve realized substantial success over my entrepreneurial career, so there’s plenty to be proud of. But, if I’m honest, innovation has never been my focus. The word “innovation” is thrown around a lot, and a lot of entrepreneurs are called innovators or think of themselves as innovators. But, what does that really mean? Is anyone who comes up with a new idea an innovator? To some extent, every true entrepreneur has at least a touch of the “innovation gene” in them, but not everyone is what can be called a true innovator.
As an example, Motorola was the first mobile phone manufacturer to offer a color screen with the T720, way back in 2002. Did that make them innovators? Maybe, in the most basic sense of the word, but let’s face it — the color cell phone screen was coming with or without Motorola.
On the other hand, look at Apple and the first iPhone. When that device was launched five years after Motorola’s color phone, it had every competing company scrambling to come up with something comparable. And now we can’t imagine a phone that isn’t in many ways similar to the line of iPhones since. That’s when you know you’ve introduced a true innovation.
What is true innovation?
So, what’s the difference? Both the T720 and the iPhone offered something no one else had before, and you could even say that both marked the start of a new era in cell phones. But, unless you used to own a T720 or worked for a company that carried them, you probably don’t even remember ever hearing of them. Everyone knows what an iPhone is though, even if they’ve never owned one. That’s because they didn’t just introduce a tweek of an existing product or a cool feature; they revolutionized mobile interface technology and changed the lexicon of a generation in the process. That’s true innovation.
Of course, it’s not just that everyone has heard of the iPhone — a great marketing campaign might have accomplished that. It’s that the introduction of the iPhone caused consumers and technology manufacturers to think of cell phones in a new way.
The same can be said of companies like Uber. If Travis Kalanick had invented a new type of meter for taxi cabs, that might have been cool for that industry. Instead, he came up with an industry disruptor, and paying for a ride somewhere will never be the same. True innovation doesn’t just cause a buzz — it initiates change.
How to be an innovator
If you want to be a true innovator, there are a few traits that will define you as such. Here’s what real innovators do.
1. They recognize market needs.
Innovators are people who can identify a need within an industry, market segment or culture and spot opportunity in it. More importantly, top innovators identify needs before people even know they need them. No one wanted a service like Uber or a device like the iPhone before they came along. The need and the solution hit the market at the same time.
2. They develop and refine a solution.
Once an innovator recognizes a need and makes up their mind to fill it, they tend to work tirelessly on finding the most imaginative, practical solution possible. Then, they work to refine their solution to not only meet the need but anticipate future needs and advancements in order to give their solution longevity. You can be sure the iPhone that people bought in June of 2007 was not based on the first schematic proposed . . . and you can be just as sure that the features of the next three versions had already been worked out at that point.
3. They take chances.
True innovators are great at identifying needs and developing solutions, but they know there’s no guarantee their solution is going to be a winner. All entrepreneurs are willing to take risks, and innovators are willing to go even further and risk going where no one has gone before.
4. They push the envelope.
The very nature of innovation is that it is beyond the norm. True innovators understand that they need to think beyond what anyone has tried so far. They take things to the next level — and then some. This is part of taking risks, but it’s also about imagination and a willingness to try something completely new.
5. They create meaning.
When we talk about true innovators, we’re not talking about people who create a product for the sake of creating a product. These are people who are out to make an impact. They might not be trying to fix the world’s ills, but they are at least trying to shake things up and get people thinking differently. True innovation often spawns entire industries — and there’s meaning in that.
So, what do you think? Are you a true innovator? What makes someone an innovator in your mind? Share your thoughts with the community in the comments below.