In The Huddle with Fran Tarkenton

The Power of Experimental Innovators

fran-emailSuccessful small business owners and entrepreneurs come in all different types. They can have a lot of different interests, backgrounds, and styles.

I recently read Originals, the newest book by Adam Grant, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve loved his past work, and he has more great insights and ideas in this book. In this book he’s looking at what makes the most innovative, creative people so, well, innovative and creative.

One notion that really jumped out at me, and that I want to talk about a bit more today, is that there are really two kinds of innovators: conceptual innovators and experimental innovators. These two groups both develop great innovations, but their minds work in very different ways, and I think those differences can create misconceptions about what innovation is.

Conceptual innovators are people who have a big idea, and they bring it to bear on a problem they see. They often do their biggest, most innovative work at an early age—or at least in the early stages of their work in any field. They bring a fresh perspective to a problem and, despite a lack of experience, can upend and disrupt the traditional way of doing things.

I think that when a lot of people associate entrepreneurship and innovation with 20somethings in their dorm rooms and garages, they are really thinking of this kind of innovation.

I fit in much more with the second group of innovators: experimental innovators. This group of people build their ideas over time, learning through trial and error. They identify a problem they want to solve, but don’t approach that problem with a solution already in mind. Instead, they develop the knowledge and skill to solve the problem over time—it might take years and even decades of experience.

This is the approach I have always taken. Try something, see what worked and what didn’t work. Try something, fail, then try again. I literally wrote the book on failure and how we learn from our failures to ultimately achieve success. It takes a while, but the solutions that experimental innovators develop are every bit as creative and powerful as what the conceptual innovators come up with.

Conceptual innovators get a lot of attention, because it’s easy to see the story when someone comes out of nowhere with a big idea. But experimental innovators are so valuable and do so much.

Adam Grant makes an interesting point, that conceptual innovators have a big idea that gets out there quickly and might even change the world—but they often see everything through the lens of that one big idea for the rest of their career. As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Experimental innovators, on the other hand, because they are basing ideas on lengthy experience, often come up with not just one idea, but many ideas as they keep on gaining more experience and learning new things.

I have often said that I am learning at a faster rate now than ever before, and I have more and more ideas. I think there are a lot of other seniors out there who have ideas they’ve developed through years of experience and wisdom, and there’s no better time than the present to put those ideas to work. Whether you start a business, go to work in the community, or choose any other outlet, stay active, keep learning, and gain experience. You never know when it’ll all come together in the next big idea.

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