Innovation is the lifeblood of any business — but sometimes, it can be hard to find that innovative, creative spark. This is true of any stage of your entrepreneurial career, but it is especially common after you’ve already established your company.
It’s easy to feel excited and innovative when first starting your business. But after a while, it can be all too easy to fall into a rut of doing the same things over and over, simply because that’s how you’ve always done them.
In reality, training yourself to be a more innovative thinker can benefit your business at any stage. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Rob Finlay, founder and CEO of Thirty Capital, who, as a serial entrepreneur, is no stranger to approaching things differently …
His innovative thinking habits offer a valuable blueprint for any entrepreneur:
1) Clarify What Problems You Need to Solve
“You won’t get anywhere if you don’t clearly understand the problems you want to solve,” Finlay says. “Preparation is key to successful innovative thinking. This often means gathering information from a variety of sources, so you can look at the problem from different angles besides those you originally thought of. And of course, you need to look at these problems in light of your business’s mission and vision. Putting everything in its proper context sets the stage for successful innovation.”
No business can solve every problem for its customers. A restaurant isn’t going to solve its customers’ lawn care needs. However, brands in any industry can constantly uncover new challenges or concerns being faced by their target audience.
Actively identifying problems in your niche and gathering as much information as possible is a key beginning step to innovating on your current services or processes.
2) Practice Creative Thinking Exercises
Even when you aren’t actively trying to solve a niche problem, you can train your brain to think more creatively. “Creative thinking exercises are a great way to reframe your perspective,” Finlay explains.
“Brainstorming sessions where you write down literally every idea that comes to you will allow you to be more open-minded. Mind map diagrams help you uncover connections between different ideas or go deeper into a topic. You could even role-play with team members to understand possible outcomes of different actions your business might take.”
According to Finlay, part of the benefit of such exercises is that it allows leaders to generate far more ideas than they would otherwise. Notably, research from Northern Illinois University has found that groups who brainstorm with an emphasis on generating as many ideas as possible and building off each other’s ideas also become more cohesive.
In other words, these exercises don’t just help you become more innovative — they can also increase unity among your staff.
3) Never Be Content With the Obvious Solution
When engaging in creative thinking exercises, groups will sometimes immediately jump on one solution as the obviously correct choice. But Finlay warns that leaders shouldn’t always be so eager to chase the easy solution:
Part of the value of brainstorming is that it can force you to consider every process. Quite often, the obvious idea is really just the foundation for a better, more successful solution. The ‘obvious’ solution should always serve as a starting point, rather than the end of your creative thinking. Don’t be afraid to use this same approach with ideas that initially don’t seem as great of a solution. Critically thinking through several ideas can unveil new insights that help you better identify the actual best choice.
While not every idea merits a deep dive, those trying to improve their innovative thinking abilities should strive to carefully consider potential outcomes and challenges associated with several different options. This improves ideation, while also allowing you to make decisions with confidence.
4) Get Away and Unwind
“It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes, the best thing you can do to enhance your innovative thinking abilities is get away from the office,” Finlay says.
“Turn off your smartphone and go for a walk or read a book. Interact with your friends. Quite often, turning your focus to something completely different from work will help your mind wander and think more creatively. You may even find connections between things that seemed completely unrelated, giving you the insight you need to solve your problem.”
As an example of this, research from Stanford University found that walking increases a person’s creative output by 60 percent. The benefits to creative thinking also carry over to the period shortly after a person finishes their walk.
It is believed that part of the reason why these breaks improve innovative thinking is because they reduce stress. When you give yourself a break, your brain is free to consider ideas outside the constraints and pressures of a normal work environment.
When you improve your own innovative thinking abilities, you will foster a culture of creativity within your company — and this can pay big dividends. Research from Adobe found that 78 percent of businesses that actively invested in creativity saw improved employee productivity and customer experiences. Perhaps even more importantly, 83 percent felt they were able to foster innovation throughout the company.
As a leader, you set the tone for the rest of your company. When you make innovative thinking a priority, others will follow suit — and the resulting success will show the difference.