In an effort to broaden my t-shaped skills portfolio, I dug in and started learning AngularJS. Being able to mock things up quickly (and by myself) allows me to get prototypes into the hands of the core users faster, cheaper, and more closely aligned with the hypothesis I’m testing. So while I am certainly no master of the craft, I can do enough programming to get some ideas off the ground and feeling real (ok real-ish).
While learning AngularJS, I observed some truths that apply to the innovative process as a whole.
It’s good to be a beginner at something.
Being a beginner means you see things with fresh eyes. You have no established patter or status quo in this skill or topic yet, so you don’t have to break old habits to be personally innovative. Also, there will be moments when you’ll discover a faster, easier way to accomplish something because you don’t “know” enough to build in the old-guard way of doing things. Bill Gates said he chooses “a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” I say that applies to beginners as well.
Break your mental models.
What you do have is a status-quo in your brain that shows you how to decipher the world. If life was a map, your mental models are the legend. A squiggly line over here seems to match with the mountain shape in my legend, so I will plan for it to be a mountain. However, what if that squiggle is actually a lake, you just didn’t have lakes in your mental model? Learning something new breaks your existing legend, expands it to include new models, and gives you more lenses in your innovation toolbox. The trick here is to constantly find things to break your legend.
Get something live quickly.
Learning code is awesome because you need to have a working “thing” in order to see if what you’re mashing into your keyboard is right. And the quicker and more often you can have a working “thing”, the less down the wrong road you travel. Imagine writing a 15-page term paper to only find out it is all garbage because your first sentence was wrong. Having something live minimizes risk down the road. And by live, I’m not saying it always has to be market-ready. But functioning to some end helps stakeholders and customers alike envision your innovation. There’s great stuff in Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull on this… about having the story always viewable, even if it is just rough sketches.
Iterate, iterate, iterate.
Keep going, keep trying, don’t stop. Once you feel you have a handle on your new thing, it’s time to do it again and see if you’ve REALLY got it. Don’t just put a new skill on the shelf. It isn’t a conversation piece, it’s a working tool. The next problem you are trying to solve in your innovative journey, spend some time thinking about how you can solve it with your newly learned skill. This is why we learn… the abstract application in real-life.
Ladder up into the unknown.
Learning a new skill or topic usually has a definitive end state. “Once you can do this, you’ve learned all I can teach you for now.” But this is where the magic happens. What ELSE can you do with this new thing you’ve got? Unity3D has a popular tutorial that teaches people how to make a ball game. The ball rolls around a surface and collects items when it collides with them. But innovation isn’t simply doing what people tell you to do, or give you step-by-step directions to do. I’ve seen ball games that have the ball teleport through different dimensions or become Newtonian physics simulations. You have to take your new skill one more step up the ladder into the unknown.
Challenge: Learn something new
- What new things have you wanted to learn?
- What’s preventing you? How can those roadblocks be eliminated?
- After you’ve learned your new thing, do something more awesome with it!