Work & Purpose

4 Ways to Be More Innovative at Work

These clever techniques just might help you hatch the next great, money-making idea

When you think of innovative people, who comes to mind? Steve Jobs? Albert Einstein? Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx?
How about you?
The Innate Ability to Innovate
Don’t be too quick to reject that possibility. “We’re born with an innate ability to innovate,” Dr. David Pensak, the author of Innovation for Underdogs, told me. Using that innate ability can make you a more valuable employee at work and help you devise new products or services that could make you money as an entrepreneur.
And here's something that might surprise you: “The older you get,” Pensak says, “the more innovative you become.”
Here’s why: “The more you have observed and experienced, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to identify truly innovative solutions to problems,” says Pensak, 64. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Every year you’re alive, you see more pieces. That increases the likelihood that you’ll assemble them in ways no one else has thought of.”
(MORE: How to Get a Patent for Your Invention)
I’m inclined to believe him. After all, it’s hard to argue with a guy who is a Ph.D. chemist, computer scientist, owner of dozens of patents, a childhood family friend of Albert Einstein, and teacher of  “Innovention” (the process of innovation and invention) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Pensak is on the faculties of George Washington University School of Law and the University of Delaware Business School.
He says one key to unleashing your ability to innovate is working with a mentor with the experience to guide you. (Next Avenue's Kerry Hannon recently blogged about the importance of mentors for women.) Pensak is a big fan of finding a mentor from SCORE, the nonprofit supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, whose retired business professionals offer entrepreneurs advice for free or at a low cost.
4 Simple Tricks for Innovators
Pensak and a few other smart minds who've been written about recently have four simple tricks to tap into your innovative abilities:
The index card technique. Pensak says note cards will help you with what he calls a “thought prosthesis” — a tool that lets your brain bend in ways it otherwise couldn’t by partnering two thoughts you experienced on separate occasions.
Buy some 3-by-5-inch index cards, rubber band a stack, and carry them around with you. “Each time you encounter something that intrigues you, irritates you or inspires you, write it down on a separate note card,” Pensak says in his book. Then, every once in a while, take out the cards, shuffle them and deal them out in pairs. See if the random juxtaposition of any two items gives you an insight.
Pensak says: “By writing down your thoughts on note cards, you will not only retain ideas that would otherwise leave your mind, but you will also be able to assess those old ideas in the company of new ones. The combination of both new and old ideas is one of the most fantastic recipes for innovation.”
(MORE: How to Market Your Small Business)

Use the “Yes, and…” technique. Fast Company.com suggests this in its new article, “The Second City Way of Better Brainstorming.”  The “Yes, and…” technique refers to what improv comedians (like my son, Aaron) do to take the kernel of an idea in a sketch and really make it pop.
With “Yes, and…,” an improvisor blurts out an idea and someone else on his or her team affirms and builds on it. “In the business world, that’s a foreign idea. Mostly people are thinking, ‘No, but…,” Tom Yorton, chief executive of Second City Communications, said in the article. You don’t need a team to use “Yes, and…” Just start with an idea — yours or one you picked up — and build on it.
Force yourself to stop assuming that your first idea is your best idea. Remember when you took the SATs and you were told to go with your first answer? That’s not the path to innovation.
“Many people assume the first idea you have is always the best," Pensak says. "I’ve never been that fortunate in my life.”

This, from the guy who launched the first commercially successful Internet firewall, Raptor Systems, and created Vaporiety, a travel mug that enhances coffee's aroma. (Pensak is negotiating with Starbucks to manufacture the patented mug, dubbed one of the “World’s 50 Most Innovative Startups” by the Kaufmann Foundation, which is devoted to entrepreneurship.)
Work in a blue room. NPR’s Sarah Zielinski says a study of colors and creativity in Science found that people facing a blue computer screen did better at creative tasks and ones facing a red screen did better at detail-oriented tasks. Mark Beeman, an associate professor of psychology at Northwestern University, studies “the neuroscience of creativity.” He told Zielinski that blue tells us we can relax, which lets the imagination roam free.

So go get a pack of index cards, take them to a blue room, and come up with those “Yes, and…” ideas that will make you more successful — and maybe even rich.

RIchard Eisenberg, editor at Next Avenue wearing a suit jacket in front of a teal background.
By Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow him on Twitter.

Next Avenue Editors Also Recommend:

Next Avenue brings you stories that are inspiring and change lives. We know that because we hear it from our readers every single day. One reader says,

"Every time I read a post, I feel like I'm able to take a single, clear lesson away from it, which is why I think it's so great."

Your generous donation will help us continue to bring you the information you care about. Every dollar donated allows us to remain a free and accessible public service. What story will you help make possible?