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How do you know if an idea is innovative? You might feel that your pet idea is amazing, only to find out it's not only obvious but can already be found in several open-source implementations. (Been there, done that, got the T-shirt!) Patent searches are difficult because patents are intentionally vague. Your best bet? Ask subject experts, or just put it out there and see if anyone complains. As long as it's innovative to some people, it's okay, right?
I wonder if the most missed opportunities, however, are when we don't think an idea is innovative, when we think it's blindingly obvious to everyone. Some things come naturally to us because they makes sense given our experiences and our situation, and we forget that even if we're in the same situation that other people find themselves in, our experiences give us a unique perspective on things. How can we recognize our innovative ideas if we think we're ordinary?
Here's what research into creativity and expertise has to say:
The empirical evidence on creative achievement shows... that individuals require a long preparatory period during which they master the relevant aspects of that domain until they are even capable of making creative contributions to the domain. ... Extended education is, thus, necessary even to recognize major innovations and distinguish them from products matching acknowledged achievements previously created by earlier eminent performers. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998
In order to recognize that something is new, you should know the old stuff. Pretty straightforward, right? That can involve a lot of work. Even in science and other well-documented fields, people specialize because they can't keep track of everything going on. Where's the pay-off for this work?
...the extended education of expert performers primarily elevates the level of play and search by providing the appropriate tools and the rich knowledge about previous achievements. - K. Anders Ericsson, 1998
The more you know, the more you can play with, the wider the solution space you can explore. Every programming language you learn opens up new worlds for you. Every tool you try out adds value in a combinatorial explosion. The further you go, the likelier it is that you come up with ideas that few other people could have come up with, too. And the more you learn about what's already there, the better you'll be at recognizing when something's new.
Right. But you don't have time to do that. So what can you do?
Here's how I deal with personal-level ideas:
If an idea seems innovative to me, it's probably innovative for at least one other person. If I can, I want to find that person and make his or her life better. ;) If I come across lots of people for whom this is a new idea, I might really have something good on my hands.
If an idea seems obvious to me, I'll keep it in mind anyway, and I'll share it with other people. Chances are, it's innovative for at least one other person, etc. Sometimes I'll realize I have cool ideas by just talking to other people and thinking about how we deal with things differently. I usually share the details of my little idea as a blog entry because I just know I'm going to run into more people who want to hear about it. I almost always come up with even better ideas while I'm describing the original one. So I really like sharing ideas with people, especially people who share their own ideas with me. We all grow.
I'm not too concerned yet about Really Innovative Ideas that need IP protection. I'm just practicing the skills of coming up with good ideas and making them happen. I have a growing collection of the cool ideas I spot or come up with, which I keep on index cards because index cards are the best for rapidly flipping through stuff. Starting with the idea that everything is innovative to somebody, the task then becomes one of filtering through this whole list of ideas to find one or two that can make someone incredibly happy. Sometimes I'll start with that someone in mind, and then my brain will kick into high gear and come up with suggestions. (I love that!) Sometimes I'll start with a cool idea and then, just for fun, see what I can apply it to and who might like it.
Is an idea innovative or not? I don't think it really matters to me. I have a feeling it should matter—after all, I'm currently doing my master's research—but I'm much more interested in whether it's worth it to find people it's new to (and everything is new to someone, which you know if you've ever tried teaching someone division), and what else I can do with the idea. That's why anyone who spends a few minutes with me at a networking event will come away with bucketloads of ideas and things to check out if they give me any sort of clue about their interests. That's why I love listening and sharing stories, because that helps me add people's experiences to my idea pool and lets me exercise my brain.
And then it becomes true: the more I learn and try out, the more ideas I have to play with, the more clearly I can recognize when most people will think that an idea of mine is crazy or cool. And that's not work - that's fun! So I think that's a great way to practice being innovative. Don't worry if your ideas are innovative or not! You'll always be able to find people who'll think those ideas are new and useful (although in some cases, you'll have to look very very hard). If these ideas make your life better, go for it. If they make other people's lives better, great! As you practice, you'll learn more and more about what other people think and how other people think, and you'll get not only a better sense of what's new but also what could be!
Ericsson, K.A. (1998) "The scientific study of expert levels of performance: general implications for optimal learning and creativity", High Ability Studies, 9:1, 75—100
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