By Jarie Bolander
Thomas Edison was famous for saying:

Invention is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.

What he should have said was:

Invention comes through practice.

Just like the endurance athlete, innovators need to practice.
Practice takes many forms. From the thought experiment, to the mockup all the way to beta, it’s all practice for the big event – shipping a product.

Innovative Deep Practice

I’m a big fan of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. If you have not read it yet, you should. In The Talent Code, Mr. Coyle explains how we improve our skills through deep practice. Deep practice is a state where we break down new skills into manageable chucks and throughly master each component. It’s a place where we struggle, do it wrong, adjust and in the end master it.
The best innovators use deep practice to break down problems into manageable pieces, grind away on solving them, make mistakes and then move on.

Practicing More Deeply

Too often, innovators of all kinds want the “Home Run.” They want their idea, invention or process to work right away. This seldom, if ever, happens.
Instead, the consistent innovator uses deep practice to always make progress – even when experiments go wrong.
Listed below are some of the techniques that innovators can use to practice more deeply and innovate consistently:

  • Explore outside your comfort zone: Push yourself a little to see what might inspire you.
  • Thin innovation slices: Always look at big problems in thin slices. That way, you can achieve small, incremental wins.
  • Enlist others: Nothing beats collaborating with other smart people. Find some and get going.
  • Create mockups: Models and mockups are great ways to touch and feel something – even in software. The guy that designed the first PDA build one out of wood to see how it felt in his hand.
  • Make prototypes: The next level from mockup is prototype where the gadget actually does something. Like a mockup, prototypes give you a lot of insights into what works and what does not.
  • Ship a Beta: Building something and shipping it feels great. It also gives you a tremendous amount of feedback so that you can innovate even more.
  • Admire Art: Art provides great inspiration. Admiring art can inspire all sorts of innovative threads that might lead to other ideas.
  • Build pieces: Take those innovation slices above and build the pieces. This will allow you to make incremental progress towards the bigger goals.

Practice, Stumble, Fail & Practice Some More

Innovation is a game of doing. You can’t just think your way to invention or innovation – you have to get in the lab, write code, build a prototype or ship that beta.
Part of practicing innovation is failing. Well, not exactly failing. Let’s just say that most of the time, your grand idea doesn’t make it past the bit bucket and you need to be fine with that. Here’s why.
Innovation is about pushing the envelope of understanding. Way out there on the frontier, there is no one to guide you. You are alone in the vast wilderness that is the cutting edge.
That can be a little scary since all that time you spend wandering may not produce anything of “real” value that others can see, touch or taste.

Besides practice, the innovator needs some basic tools and techniques to make the innovation journey a little more predicable and comfortable. Some of my favorites include:

  • Keep an idea journal: An idea journal is an invaluable tool to find trends and cluster ideas. Just reading through a journal can give you all sorts of inspiration.
  • Have a hobby: Hobbies are great to spark creativity and innovation. I once had a friend who created an entire remote control toy business because he was sick and tired of not having enough frequencies to use.
  • Be well read: Reading a wide variety of topics and styles creates opportunities for cross over innovation. Great ideas will come from looking at a problem from a different perspective.
  • Take long walks: Wander, stroll, skip or run. Anything to get you out of a building and thinking. Many of my best ideas come when I’m working out.
  • Volunteer: Volunteering is not only tremendously rewarding but a great place for inspiration. You would be amazed at how much you can help an organization and yourself by just giving a few hours a week.
  • Help others innovate: Get out there and help someone else create. This is just like the recruiting others above and it’s for the same reason – the more brains, the better the idea flow.

Now, Get Out There And Innovate

The best kept secret about innovation is to practice and start doing something. Anything that can get your mind working and creating will benefit you. It might take time to build the next Twitter or Foursquare but you will never get there without practicing innovation everyday. Even if you stumble and fail, you are still making progress, and progress is how innovation comes to life.
Jarie Bolander is an engineering by training, entrepreneur by nature and leader by endurance. His new site, combines two of this passions – leadership and endurance athletics. Jarie is also a moderator at Answers.OnStartups.

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