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How to Think Like an 'Innovator'

11/07/2013 05:27 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 10:53 EST

The word 'innovation' has been overused to a point where it's lost all meaning and you're probably sick of hearing it. But it's the business leaders who actively seek it out who will set themselves up for future success.

There is a psychological phenomenon known as semantic saturation -- a situation in which endless repetition of a word causes it to temporarily lose all meaning. That's the place we're at right now with words like 'innovation', 'innovative' and 'innovator'. They sit right alongside 'disrupt,' last year's most-misused word according to Quartz.

But overuse aside, when you take a minute to think about what it really means, the word 'innovator' is full of possibility. An innovator is someone who introduces a new way of thinking or doing things -- something fresh but also something better. And innovators are the ones who understand that teamwork and collaboration are the best ways to get things done.

Innovation comes in many forms -- like the pure innovation that comes from scientific research and the world of academia. Fantastic discoveries like mapping the human genome are helping to make the world a better place every day. But the challenge is how to commercialize these projects so that they're "first to market" instead of just first out of the lab.

Startups are such fertile sources of innovation because they are more driven by the day-to-day economics of keeping their business afloat. They live or die both by their ability to be innovative thinkers, and their ability to execute on that thinking. That's why investors are often much more interested in the team than in the idea -- because "getting it done" matters as much as, or more than, the concept behind a game-changing product or service.

Within our team we spend a lot of time talking about the concept of the "willing innovator." At a time where practically every industry needs software, it helps us think about the people we want to partner with -- those who align with our culture and view of the world. To us, this isn't necessarily about having been innovative in the past. It's more about striving towards innovation, and having a mindset that is open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Willing innovators can be found at every level of business - from early stage startups to huge enterprise organizations that are specifically looking to reform their business and get the edge in their market.

There's an emerging trend within the enterprise that sees their teams looking to the startup world for inspiration. Canadian Tire, one of Canada's most-visited retailers, recently took a space in Waterloo's startup incubator, Communitech, to learn how to think and act like a startup. They joined around 100 startups and small businesses in the space, hoping to learn valuable business lessons from the community there.

We recently got an opportunity to work with another major player in the Canadian retail space who was willing to embrace innovation. Sobeys partnered with us to relaunch sobeys.com and to build their new iOS and Android apps. More importantly, to partner with them to develop and execute on a complete digital strategy and roadmap and take a leadership position in the grocery retail category. We found them to be true 'willing innovators' who were ready to move away from a traditional agency model in order to learn the best way to build digital products and define their digital strategy.

They showed themselves to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and embrace concepts familiar to the startup world -- like lean startup principles and Agile software development. This shift in thinking is being echoed in enterprise organizations around the globe, says the Society of Digital Agencies:

"The trend toward clients innovating "out-of-house" and maintaining their existing digital experiences in-house will only become more pronounced this year and into 2014. Top production companies are becoming more proactive and are taking a larger seat at the table with clients, based largely on the unique value and innovative IP they're delivering. " - Society of Digital Agencies Report 2013

Top takeaways for enterprise teams:

1. The startup world is a great place to look for innovation -- you just have to be willing to embrace it.

2. Success is about more than just a great idea. It's about having a team who can take that idea from concept to reality.

3. Innovation needs to happen at both the business model level and around the products you build in order to gain an edge in your industry.

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