Growth / Personal Development

3 Ways to become a Better Innovator

Ben Snedeker

Updated: May 18, 2019 · 5 min read

Toolkit for download in this article

Lynda Rae Harris has a knack for business and a track record of innovative business ideas that led her to become a self-made billionaire. As one of her ventures in the 1990s, she purchased a large tract of farmland and planted pomegranates, which were relatively unheard of as a cash crop at the time. Ten years later, she read a study citing the health benefits of the antioxidants in the fruit, and she realized the potential market opportunity. She was poised to pounce.

The study noted that a person would need to eat two pomegranates a day to get a significant health benefit. It’s a bit of a stretch for the average consumer to eat one pomegranate, let alone two. But to drink the juice of two pomegranates is another thing altogether. Thus, Pom Wonderful juice was born with its characteristic bulbous bottle, shaped distinctively like a pair of stacked pomegranates. Practically overnight, Harris launched an incredibly successful venture and made pomegranate juice a household item.

Harris’ success with Pom Wonderful mirrored her successes in her other business ventures. In fact, many of the greatest innovators of our time, whether in business or technology, share this kind of repeatable innovative thinking. Their approach is marked by three distinct traits: 

1. Use empathetic imagination

Harris’ way of foreseeing the market potential of an unusual product and making it ready in a timely way is what John Sviokla and Mitch Cohen term in their study of self-made billionaires, “Empathetic Imagination.”

In the article, Sviokla and Cohen state: “In almost all stories of self-made billionaire success, there is a similar blockbuster idea, conceived with a similar formula: awareness, empathy, imagination, and knowledge. The producer has typically worked in the field long enough to have an awareness of critical trends...sees an underexploited customer need, and experiences deep empathy for those customers.”

Innovators see what others are missing because they stay in tune with current trends relating to their target audience. The more you can know about current events, technology, and human behavior, the better you can enhance your ability to develop new business ideas that connect with a real human need. Innovators take a powerful approach to imagining what’s possible in the world: Empathetic imagination allows them to understand the customers they serve and develop an idea with wide ranging potential. The deeper the understanding, the more creative they can be with their solution.

2. Use first-principles reasoning

“First principles,” simply put, refers to the fundamental scientific concepts on which theories, systems, or methods are based. For example, when a civil engineer is tasked with designing a new bridge, she can confidently predict how her bridge design will work, thanks to established engineering first principles that were derived from a history of bridge design, testing, and building. First principles make it possible for her to create a radical design that pushes the limits.

Innovators make first principle reasoning the foundation for their wildest ideas. They begin with the most fundamental truths and imagine up from there. For example, first principles state that humans can develop rockets for space travel and have been improving on them for decades. Therefore, it’s inherently possible to develop a better rocket. This means that someone like Elon Musk, a quintessential innovator (but not himself a rocket scientist), can launch a company that develops a better rocket. And he did—it’s called SpaceX. While the idea of starting your own rocket company may seem unreasonable on the surface, the starting premise is based in absolute fact. 

Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google said, “It turns out most people haven’t been educated in this kind of moon shot thinking. They tend to assume things are impossible rather than starting from real world physics, and figuring out what’s actually possible.”

If your idea seems outlandish, turn to first principles. More often than not, first principles will help you refine your vision and remind you that you need to surround yourself with experts who can help you achieve that vision. 

3. Imagine with a larger purpose in mind

Innovators ask bigger questions: “What could my business do to change the world? What could my business do to disrupt the way that things happen in my industry?” Most people hear questions like those and assume that the obvious answer would be, “Very little.” But innovators can envision their business making a tremendous impact, and they plug that vision into their identity, which can transform the company’s direction.

In fact, when you combine empathetic imagination and first principles thinking, you’re very likely to find yourself thinking about your business’ greater purpose. Look at Musk (yes, he’s a bit of a superhero), whose purpose for founding Tesla Motors was bigger than profitability. First principles made it clear that it was possible to build an electric car. Musk’s empathetic imagination understood that there was a strong public demand for next-generation electric vehicles. But why did he take on the challenge? “Our goal,” said Musk, “When we created Tesla [was] to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing mass market electric cars to market. As soon as possible.” By tying his business to the larger purpose of sustainable transportation, he infused deep meaning to his project, which gave his supporters a reason to root for his company. Arguably, the company’s purpose attracted a rabid fan base that drove the company to stardom.

Everyday innovation

Many times, we hear the term “innovation” and our impulse is to think of high-tech, but some of the greatest innovations in business are low-tech ideas, like pomegranate juice. In fact, according to the Boston Consulting Group’s 2015 listing of the Top 50 Most Innovative Companies, “Three-quarters of the companies in the top 50 were non-tech, including firms as diverse as Japan’s Fast Retailing (15), Disney (18), and Marriott (19).”

Innovative thinking gives your employees, your customers, and your fans real reason to cheer for your success. Tech company or not, people (customers) rally around innovators bold enough to change the status quo, so it makes good sense for businesses to find ways to innovate.

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