Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!

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Mentoring is the Secret Sauce

YodaLast month I gave a talk at Innovate Pasadena on mentoring. I shared some reflections on what it has meant to me to have mentors in my personal and work life, and what it means to me to be a mentor when I have the opportunity. I talked about my former staff members who still call me up, the new people whose journey I have joined, and how all that creates an ecosystem of mutual support, vibrant feedback loops, and trusted opinion testing.

It is worth noting given the inescapable subjectivity in this meditation that this is simply how I think about the world, one mentor’s opinion as it were, and not meant to be an encyclopedic statement for all worthy mentors at large. That said, here are some of the key ideas I covered:

What is mentoring? My definition: One person who has ideas and experience to offer engaging in a relationship with another person who has ideas and experience to offer. It’s a two-way street. If it’s not a relationship—which means give and take—it does not work.

What isn’t it? It isn’t me making the hard decisions for you that you don’t want to make for yourself. I think of this as a Socratic dialogue where I get to ask you a lot of questions. You’re going to do all the work, because it’s your work, and I won’t let you dump your work on me.

Am I going to step on your fingers or tell you you’re awesome? Yes. It depends on what you need. This is jazz. I go with the flow. BTW, if you’re not awesome, I’m not going to be interested at all. If I’m hard on you, it’s because I need to be, not because I want to be. If I don’t say anything at all, it’s because I have given up—that’s the worst thing that can happen.

What’s the difference between consulting, coaching, and mentoring? I have given a three-day seminar on this, but think of it this way: When I’m consulting, you’re paying for my experience to fix a problem; you want a recommendation and you want it backed up. When I’m coaching, you’re paying me for my time to bring out the best in you. I think of both consulting and coaching as relatively shorter-term assignments that surely can be extended, and while mentoring encompasses elements of both, I think of it as a longer-term engagement, even if sporadic. When I’m mentoring, we’re both investing in a relationship that helps you do your job, that brings both of us benefits, tangible and intangible. I don’t expect anything when I consult except to get paid on time, which is why I don’t do much of it. I don’t expect you to give back when I’m coaching, I expect you to perform. When I’m mentoring, I expect to get something back from you, even if it’s just satisfaction, but I also expect to learn things from you that I can redirect elsewhere.

Can your boss be your mentor? Yes, if you are very lucky. I’ve had a few bosses who were fantastic mentors. They were 100% in my corner. They were not competing with me. I have also had awful bosses who said all the buzzwords but couldn’t have cared less if I lived or died as long as I made them rich. If you don’t have a good boss, and odds are you don’t, especially if you’re an entrepreneur, then find yourself a mentor. I promise you, the mountain climb ahead is going to hurt a lot less if you have someone who really cares about you—other than your spouse, who is truly tired of hearing all your business problems and probably can’t help you more than she or he already has.

How do I find a mentor? They will probably find you, and the question is, will you be paying attention? Almost no one fills out a mentoring application or posts a listing on Craigslist to be a mentor. Coaches and consultants do that. Mentors opt into a relationship as it naturally expands. Keep your eyes open! If someone is taking an interest in your work, go with it. Incubators and accelerators offer formal and informal ways to meet industry experts, but so do community centers and shared-interest groups. If someone invests in your company and he or she is showing an interest in more than your financial performance, spend more time with them. Do things for people all the time and they will do things for you, often when you least expect it and most need it. You don’t have to ask, “Will you be my mentor?” In fact, most of the time I find out years afterward that someone thought of me as a mentor. It happens naturally.

Will I open my Rolodex to you? OK, first, what’s a Rolodex? The answer is yes, selectively, as trust builds. If I’m financially invested in your success and I think you’ll do well with an open door, I may open it. If I’m not personally invested in you but I think there is a win-win introducing you to someone I know, I may do it, but understand, my network and my reputation are among my most important assets, so if you take advantage of my network, it’s one and done.

Do I get compensated? This can be tricky. Sometimes there is money involved in mentoring, sometimes not. First and foremost, if I admire your commitment or like what you’re brave enough to be attempting, I just do it because thank goodness someone did it for me. I have about 200 or so people from past gigs whom I still call back for free. If you worked for me in the past and reach out to me and you weren’t a turd, I’ll always call you back promptly. Sometimes in a board situation I might get paid something meaningful at liquidity. Sometimes if liquidity is a long way off and it makes sense for everyone involved given the time commitment, I might take a retainer fee. Often I get involved in a project on pure spec with the vague potential of phantom equity. A lot here depends on how much sequential time is involved, as well as how curious I am about your vision. Free or paid, cash or stock, what matters is that we both feel good about it, that the material and spiritual rewards all feel fair, and we are always transparent in our expectations.

Do you have to listen to your mentor for it to work? Yes, you have to listen. You don’t have to do what I say, but I have to know you’re listening. If you’re not listening, then why am I talking? If you just want my contacts or my money, I’m not a mentor, I’m something else. If I say something and you decide you don’t want to do it, that’s cool; just explain your thought process so I know that we are in this together. If you blow me off or don’t afford me that level of respect, I am going to bail.

Must you pay it forward and backward? You must. If you’re not planning to help someone down the road, don’t expect to keep my interest. Good people attract good people. If you join this club, expect to stay in it for life.