Sunday, April 21, 2019

From the Archives: Unleash Your Inner Innovator

Hey there! It's been a while since I've updated this blog. That's fine -- all of my current writing appears at The Revelator, instead of in half a dozen disparate publications, like in the heyday of this archive. But at the same time, I'm realizing that a lot of my older articles have disappeared from the web over the years.

It's time to fix that.

Here's the first of a few (probably quite a few) older articles that deserve to once again see the light of day.

Unleash Your Inner Innovator

By John R. Platt

(Originally published by IEEE-USA's Today's Engineer in 2007.)

I first met Jeff (not his real name) at a bookstore in central New Jersey. Jeff was an IEEE member and an engineer, but he didn't seem to have a very high opinion of himself. "I just do my job," he told me. "I'm not one of those R&D guys."

This surprised me. I asked him, "Don't you think you'll invent something some day?" 

"Nah," he replied. "I don't think I have it in me to do something really innovative."

I felt bad for Jeff, because of those two words he used: "really innovative." Without even realizing it, Jeff was placing so much pressure on himself and his creativity that he wasn't even willing to try.

The truth is, ideas come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone can come up an innovative idea. But unfortunately, not everyone puts themselves in an intellectual place where they are ready to take advantage of their own creativity to do something innovative.

So... how do you come up with something innovative? Sometimes all it takes is putting yourself in the right frame of mind. Here are some strategies and approaches you can take to help unleash your own inner innovator.

Step 1: Ignore the Nay-Sayers... Including Yourself

The first step toward coming up with an innovative idea is to give yourself permission to innovate. You can't do anything if you are holding yourself back. If you have ideas, let them live. Write them down. Try them out. Test them. Voice them. Exercise your creativity. The more you let yourself think in new ways, them more often you will do it.

Don't let others shoot your ideas down, either. This can happen far too often on an organizational level. "That won't work here" or "We've always done it this way" are no longer excuses. Rigidity leads to stagnation. Don't be afraid of change. Embrace it.
Step 2: Start Small (Unless You Think Big)

Not every innovation changes the world in one giant step. Sometimes it's just as important to make small, incremental changes.

Think about it: can you make a small improvement to something that already exists? Can you add value to an existing application? If you could improve a device that you use every day, how would you do it? Can you combine two ideas and make them better or easier when the work together?

Along the same line, many processes are ripe for improvement and innovation. Start by taking a look at the processes you use every day. If something takes ten steps, can you do it in nine? If not, can you trim the time for any of the steps and make them more efficient? Is there an entirely different way of doing something which will produce the same or similar result? Can you cut costs? These are all vital questions, and answering them is just as important as coming up with a new product.

You don't have to start small, of course. Your ability to innovate is limited only by your ability to dream. Speaking of which...
Step 3: Inspire/Challenge Your Creativity

You've probably heard the expression "think outside the box." It's a good phrase, but how do you actually do it?

Here's one example. In 1975, musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt came up with a technique to break themselves out of creative stalemates. They produced a deck of cards they called "Oblique Strategies." Each card contained a simple, challenging statement, like "change instrument roles", "turn it upside down" and "emphasize the flaws." While some of the cards obviously have more to do with music than anything else, they have been used for years by numerous writers and creative people to help point their work in directions they might not otherwise have expected.

The lessons of "Oblique Strategies" are simple: ask questions, don't make assumptions, don't force yourself down the same path over and over again, look outside yourself, and trust yourself to come up with the answers you need.
Step 4: Role Play

Let's say you're working a particularly thorny problem, and you just can't come up with an answer. But perhaps you know of someone else in your field -- let's call him Fred -- who excels at this type of work. Don't go ask Fred for help, but instead, ask yourself: "What would Fred do in this situation?" Get inside Fred's head and put yourself in his shoes. By looking at things from Fred's perspective, you might be able to role-play yourself into an answer.

This technique also works in reverse. Just ask yourself, "What wouldn't Fred do?" Sometimes taking the opposite approach of the experts in your field can yield surprising results.

Another form of role playing can be of great use when working on new products. Try to put yourself in the mindset of your end-user. How will they use a product? What need will it serve? What problems would get in the way of their enjoyment? What would make it more useful? Understanding your customer is more than a marketing technique, it can help you to fill a need that isn't being filled.
Step 5: Absorb Everything

Your mind is just like your stomach: it needs to be fed in order to fuel your creativity. Read everything you can get your hands on. Try new things. Cram your head with concepts and ideas and realities. Once your head is full, your subconscious mind can start to sort through all of those little bits of information and combine them in unexpected ways. When something new comes along, it may trigger a memory of something else, and your mind may combine the two to create something entirely new.

One man how understands this practice is science-fiction and comic-book writer Warren Ellis (Planetary, Crooked Little Vein). Ellis is known for the wild ideas which populate his fiction. He also has a very good take on where inspiration, creativity and innovation come from: "You take it from everywhere. It's like making compost: you stack up a big pile of crap until it starts steaming, and hope something useful fuses together at the bottom of the pile. You take in as much information, as much experience, as possible, and let it float around until bits connect together and form something new. That's inspiration. That's writing."

That's also innovation. Give it a try. See if your mind can take 1 plus 1 and come up with 3.
Step 6: Try, Try, Try, then Fail Again

Not every idea is going to pan out. Don't worry about it. Learn from your mistakes, and keep trying. Or examine where you went wrong, and ask if it might lead to something different than what you were trying in the first place.

After that, start again. You've got nothing to lose.

Monday, May 22, 2017

I'm back!

Well hello there. It's been a while.

As announced here a few months ago, my freelancing days are mostly behind me. I am now the editor and lead writer of a new environmental website that launched this past week after four months of development. It's called The Revelator.

I'll still do the odd bit of freelancing here and there, but for the most part The Revelator will be the home for my journalism moving forward.

And moving forward, we are. We were only "live" for three days last week, but that short time included a whole bunch of new pieces by me, including my opening editorial for the first day and several articles. Here's the whole list:

Welcome to The Revelator

The Extinction Crisis is Here. How do We Keep from Feeling Overwhelmed?

Whooping Cranes Could Be Wiped Out by Climate Change

GreenLatinos: Working Locally, Connecting Nationally

Trump’s Border Wall Could Impact an Astonishing 10,000 Species

Drawdown: 100 Powerful (and Sometimes Surprising) Solutions to Global Warming

Expect a lot more moving forward. We're just warming up!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Green Falcons

This profile of the Atlanta Falcons' efforts to build a "green" stadium is pretty much the last of the freelance articles that I had in the queue before taking the new job -- I turned it in close to six months ago! -- and it's also one of the few times you'll ever find me writing anything sports-related. 

Green Beyond the Field – American Builders Quarterly

Right now I'm deep into work to create the new environmental news site I announced a few weeks back. I'll tell you more about that soon!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Elephants, Bees & Drones

Hey there! Miss me?

I haven't had many articles to share lately because I'm deep in the development of the brand-new environmental news that I announced a few weeks ago. More details on that will come soon, but for now, here's one more freelance article that finally made its way into the world:

How to Get Elephants to Buzz Off - Scientific American

Lots more coming soon -- well, maybe not soon, but before too much longer!

Monday, February 6, 2017


Hey folks! Posts on this blog are going to be few and far between for the next couple of months while I prepare to launch the new environmental news site that I announced last week. I still have a handful of articles working their way toward publication, though. Therefore, here's this week's one and only link, for Hakai Magazine:

Hawai‘i Is Being Overrun by Invasive Cannibals

More as I have it -- and lots more in about two months!

Monday, January 30, 2017

An article and a transition

Credit: J. Todd Poling, Flickr (CC BY-2.0)
So this week's only published article was more of an announcement. Here it is:

Not an Extinction, a Transition

That's right, after a decade of freelancing, I have taken a full-time editorial job to create a brand-new environmental news site, which will be affiliated with the Center for Biological Diversity. This independent site, which launches soon, will be the home of my "Extinction Countdown" articles moving forward, as well as other writing about climate change, public lands, environmental health and related topics. There will be hard-hitting investigative journalism, current news, commentary and thought pieces from leaders in the environmental community, and a whole lot more.

Expect to hear more about the new site in the coming weeks and months.

I still have a few completed freelance pieces in the queue at various publishers, and I will continue to write a few things here and there that don't fit the scope of the new site, but for the most part, all of my writing and editorial efforts will now be found in a single location.

So yes, a big transition and a big opportunity to tell meaningful stories that help create change in the world. You can't get much better than that!

Monday, January 23, 2017