What does it take to be truly innovative? Maybe not be what you think. A lot of people believe you have to come up with something completely new that the world has never seen before. And some innovation does indeed come from creating completely new concepts. Electric lighting, for example.
But a lot more of innovation, especially in today’s world, results from combining or connecting previously separate things in completely new ways. Take Google. It’s a hugely innovative company, but its first innovation, the one that set it up for everything that followed, was connecting two previously separate things–the number of other pages that link to a page with its search ranking. That insight yielded vastly improved search results.
Or take Apple, which appears at or near the top of every list of innovative companies ever compiled. It didn’t get there and stay there by creating brand-new technologies, but by combining technology, function, and design in ways no one else had ever thought of. Apple didn’t invent the mobile phone, it didn’t invent the touch screen, and it didn’t invent the concept of an operating system where third-party apps could run. But it put those three things together to create the first iPhone and completely changed the mobile phone industry forever. Nearly every smartphone since has used that same basic design.
That marriage of previously separate elements is behind many of the innovations that led to Apple’s ongoing success. Before Jobs came along, technology was created by engineers who put their whole souls into giving their new devices and software as much gee-whiz appeal as they could, but gave little thought to people’s actual experience using their products. Jobs’ insight to combine powerful technology with ease of use and compelling design is what has set Apple apart throughout its entire history.
The fact that innovation really consists of combining separate things in a whole new way is good news if you’re trying to bring more innovation into your work or your company. It means you don’t have to have an engineering degree (Jobs didn’t) or a lot of design skills to create something truly innovative. The way Airbnb’s founders–art students!–did when it occurred to them that they could connect people who had spare rooms and wanted extra money with other people who needed a place to stay.
What it takes is a hunger to look outside your job, company, and learn about other ways of doing things in other places. It takes keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying on the lookout for new connections and directions. It means being open to pursuing whatever captures your imagination, even if its immediate use isn’t obvious.
Jobs himself did that. After dropping out of Reed College because he didn’t see how taking required courses there was helping him, he decided to remain and sit in on a some non-required courses that he found interesting. One of these was calligraphy course. He learned about typography, and varying the space between letters, and what makes beautiful lettering beautiful.
“None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life,” he said later. “But 10 years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.” Without that knowledge of typography–and that ability to connect seemingly unconnected things, the Mac would never have had choices of typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts. Since it was the first personal computer to offer these things, maybe none of them would have. It would have been impossible to foresee connecting those dots when he was in college, “But it was very, very clear looking backward 10 years later,” he said.
Which is why, he said, you must follow your intuition and “trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” That’s the best advice on how to innovate that I’ve ever heard.