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Top tips on how to think like an innovator

Article by Paul Sloane

how to think like an innovator image



If we can mimic the thinking of the great innovators then maybe we can mimic their successes too.  Here are some tips.

Reinvent yourself.  Madonna is an excellent song writer, performer and lyricist but the longevity of her success is due to her powers of reinvention. She has changed her styles, fashion and music many times.

She started with a pop and dance music in the ‘Like a Virgin’ style.  Madonna’s look, was highly influential and she became a female fashion icon.  In the 1980s she had bleached hair, lace tops, fishnet stockings and heavy jewellery.

She then embraced Hollywood glamour as a ‘Material Girl’ in the style of Marilyn Monroe.  In the 1990s with ‘Justify My Love’ she pushed the boundaries of video towards S&M long before Fifty Shades of Grey came along

Remake Yourself

So get out of the groove and remake yourself.  Be bold enough to try new styles.

Take risks and branch out in new directions.  Many artists find one niche where they are successful and then continue to produce what their fans expect.  Madonna built on her initial success by continually by taking on new challenges even if it upset people.  Like David Bowie, she kept trying different approaches and different routes to market.

Ask childlike questions.  Edwin Land was an American inventor who had studied Chemistry.  In 1943 on holiday in Santa Fe he took a photograph of his three year old daughter, Jennifer.  She asked why she could not see the result straight away and she kept asking why.  Land pondered this question and an idea formed in his mind. He went on to develop the Polaroid camera, a revolutionary product which sold over 150 million units and made Land into a celebrity. His daughter’s naive question had led him to challenge the assumptions that the whole photography industry took for granted.

Challenge assumptions by asking searching questions.   When faced with a challenge we tend to ask one or two questions and then plunge into ideas and discussion. But by asking more questions, and more basic questions, we can discover insights that challenge our assumptions and allow us to reach deeper issues and better solutions.  Edwin Land did this and went on to find a radically different and faster way to produce photographs.

Listen then act. When Anne Mulcahy was appointed CEO of Xerox Corp. in 2001, many people were surprised, including Mulcahy herself.  She had never run a company before and had little financial experience, having worked mainly in Sales and Human Resources functions.  Xerox faced huge financial problems and the stock price fell 15% on news of her appointment.

She took over the reins of a company which was close to bankruptcy.  Xerox had made losses for the previous six years and its debts amounted to over $17 billion.  Its credit rating had been slashed.  Expenses were running out of control. The company was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for financial irregularities.  Customers and shareholders were unhappy.

She started by talking and listening to employees and customers. She said, “When I became CEO, I spent the first 90 days on planes traveling to various offices and listening to anyone who had a perspective on what was wrong with the company. I think if you spend as much time listening as talking, that’s time well spent.”

The company’s turnaround was built on restructuring and the introduction of innovative products and services.  In 2008 Mulcahy was named ‘CEO of the Year’ by Chief Executive Magazine. In 2009 she retired from her position as CEO having accomplished what Money Magazine described as ‘the great turnaround story of the post-crash era.’

If you want to lead change you have to communicate your vision.  Mulcahy devoted time to talking to people and listening. She painted a different and better future for the company and communicated it with a mock-up of a future Wall Street Journal article.  She changed the culture and processes in a huge organisation with the power of communication and with clear and decisive actions.

Do the Opposite of Everyone Else

Do the opposite of everyone else. Anita Roddick opened the first Body Shop store in Brighton in 1976 to provide an income for herself and her two daughters.  The Body Shop was remarkably different from conventional cosmetic stores.  It offered quality skin care products in plain refillable containers and sample sizes with no advertising or hype.  Roddick created a range of products based on natural ingredients at a time when people were increasingly anxious over the use of chemicals.  She appealed to her customers’ concern for the environment.  She offered discounted refills to customers who brought back their empty containers.  This fresh approach proved a storming success.

Swim against the tide. Anita Roddick deliberately did the reverse of what the industry leaders and experts did. She saw that cosmetic stores were stuffy places that sold toiletries, perfumes and medicinal creams in expensive packaging and pretty bottles. She did the opposite by packaging the goods in Body Shop stores in cheap, plastic bottles with plain labels.


Based on Think Like an Innovator – 76 inspiring lessons from the world’s greatest thinkersPAUL SLOANE IMAGE and innovators.  By Paul Sloane published by Pearson, priced £12.99


Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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