21 Day Innovation Challenge

Welcome to the 21 Day Innovation Challenge.  Each day I will provide one small tip or action step you can take to help you start incorporating innovation into your business.  As we go on this 21 day journey, you will learn a system for developing innovative ideas, protecting those ideas, and using the innovations to grow your business.  If you follow the daily activities, you will be surprised at the ideas you discover over the next 21 days and maybe even realize that you are more creative than you thought!

These activities are perfect for solo entrepreneurs, contractors, and employees.  Everyone can benefit from a boost in creativity!

This blog post will be updated each day during the 21 Day Innovation Challenge.  If you miss a day, you can always catch up the next day.

You can access this article at the same link every day:  http://21DayInnovationChallenge.com

There’s no cost to participate in the challenge.  I encourage you to invite your friends and co-workers.

Please leave comments below to share your insights and experiences.  Also, feel free to ask questions in the comments – I will personally answer all questions.

OK, let’s get started….

Day 1

For Day 1, I have two simple activities for you.  These activities are important to set the foundation for the following 20 days.  Here are your Day 1 activities:

  1. Clear out any negative thoughts about whether you are creative. I’ve worked with thousands of people with all types of backgrounds, education, and experience.  The one consistent thing among all these people:  Every person has the ability to develop unique and creative ideas!  Go into this challenge with an open mind about innovation and your own creativity.  I will show you a system for activating your creative energy and developing innovative ideas.  Trust me!
  2. Get ready to record all of your brilliant ideas. Many of your creative ideas will pop into your head when you least expect it.  Be ready to record those ideas immediately.  Here are my favorite tools for quickly capturing your “flashes of brilliance”:
    • Smartphone – Use the notes app, email the idea to yourself, leave yourself a voicemail message, or text the idea to yourself.
    • Paper and Pen – Yes, this is old fashioned, but it works! Keep a pad of paper and pen in your car, on your nightstand (for those middle-of-the-night ideas), or wherever you have your best ideas.  It only takes 15 seconds to jot down your idea.
    • Shower – If you’re like most people, you get lots of great ideas in the shower. But, your smartphone and paper/pen don’t work there.  One solution is a product called AquaNotes® – they’re like Post-it® brand notes, but you can write on them when they are wet.  They mount to the wall of your shower with suction cups.  It’s a great invention and “prevents your ideas from going down the drain!”

That’s all for Day 1.  Work on these two activities so you’re ready to keep making progress tomorrow.

Day 2

Welcome to Day 2!  Today I want to provide a couple definitions of innovation.  Two common definitions are:  “The introduction of something new” and “Modification of an existing product, service or process.”  Note than an innovation is not necessarily a revolutionary new product or service like a self-driving car or a surgical robot.  A valuable innovation can be a small improvement to an existing product or a modification of a business processes that improves the efficiency of your organization.

As I mentioned in Day 1, everyone has creative skills and is capable of generating innovative ideas.  In my experience with thousands of clients, I’ve seen brilliant ideas from people in every part of an organization.  In many cases, innovation starts with identifying problems or issues you want to solve.  For example, if you work for a company, the problem may be a customer service issue where customers don’t understand how to use a specific product feature.  If you are an online entrepreneur or a member of a small group of entrepreneurs, you may be experiencing issues with certain business processes, such as managing outsourced projects.  Any type of problem or issue can be a starting point for innovative activity.

Your one activity for today is to spend 5-10 minutes making a list of problems or issues that need to be solved in your business (whether you’re a solo entrepreneur or work for a company as an employee or contractor).  You may not be the person responsible for solving the problem.  But, for now, just record the problems or issues that you think of or that you observe as you go about your daily activities.

As you think about these “problems” or “issues,” I want you to start referring to them as “innovation opportunities.”  So, what used to generate negative thoughts (a problem) is now reframed as a positive thought:  it provides an opportunity to innovate and improve your business.  For now, spend some time recording these new innovation opportunities – we will come back to this list in a few days.

Day 3

Have you experienced any “idea pops” yet?  That situation where an idea just “pops” into your head and you have no idea where it came from.  I know this is only Day 3 of the Challenge and we haven’t even started talking about the idea generation process.  But, I’ve noticed that when people start writing down innovation opportunities (formerly known as “problems”), their subconscious mind starts working on those opportunities.  And, when you least expect it, a solution to the “problem” just pops into your mind.

If this has already happened for you, that’s fantastic!  You did record the idea, right?  If it hasn’t happened for you yet, be patient, it WILL happen.  I’ve worked with lots of people, and every one of them can tell me about fantastic ideas that just came to them “out of nowhere.”

Today’s activity is to continue looking for “opportunities to innovate” (formerly known as “problems”).  Some great places to find these opportunities:  talk to people who handle customer service issues, read what journalists say about your company and its products, ask for customer feedback, and talk to other people on your team (such as co-workers and contractors).

Add these new opportunities to your list.  And, keep building your habit of seeing opportunities instead of “problems” or “complaints.”  Try to identify at least five additional opportunities from the sources mentioned above.  We will use this list of opportunities in a few days.

Day 4

How’s your list of Opportunities to Innovate coming along?  Today I’m going to give you some Magic Words to listen for.  When you hear these Magic Words, pay attention because the person speaking (or writing) these words is giving you a gift – an opportunity to innovate.  Here are a few of these Magic Words:

“I wish there was a way to …”

“I’m frustrated with …”

“Why is it so difficult to …”

“Why doesn’t someone create a …”

“I wish someone would fix …”

When you hear any of these phrases, you’re being given a chance to innovate.  Add these ideas to your list!  Your activity for today is to start listening for these magic words (especially when they relate to your business), and add them to your list.

Tomorrow you will pick one of your “opportunities to innovate” and start developing innovative solutions.

Day 5

Over the past few days, you have been creating a list of innovation opportunities.  Today you are going to start developing innovative ideas that address one of your innovation opportunities.

Think of your innovation opportunities as “innovation seeds.”  These innovation seeds are the starting point to great ideas, but you need to nurture and cultivate those seeds.  To get started, pick one of your innovation opportunities – one that is of greatest interest to you or is an important issue in your business.  You can always switch to a different innovation opportunity later, but pick one to start with.

Your activity for today:  find a block of time (start with 5-10 minutes) to think about the opportunity you selected.  Preferably, your block of time is free of distractions – silence your phone, turn off email/social media notifications on your computer and, if necessary, close the door to keep people from disturbing you.  Focus on the opportunity and think of any way to solve the problem you are addressing.  Reflect on how you previously solved similar issues or think about how others in your organization have resolved different issues.  Record every idea you think of – don’t dismiss any ideas, just record them using pen/paper, note application, etc.  Don’t analyze or judge the ideas, just get them recorded.

When you’re done with your 5-10 minute session, and you go back to your regular activities, your subconscious mind will continue to create more ideas.  So, keep your pen/paper or other recording device handy to capture these additional ideas.  I’ve worked with many people who come up with their best ideas a day or two after the initial session.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow I will show you a specific technique for finding additional ideas that can solve the innovation opportunity you’re working on.

Day 6

Did you complete your first idea session yesterday?  Did you find that your subconscious mind continued generating ideas even after the session?

Today I’m going to show you another technique to develop innovative ideas.  This technique is based on a quote by Seth Godin, one of my favorite thought leaders.  Seth Godin states, “Innovation is often the act of taking something that worked over there and using it over here.”  He is saying that many innovations include adapting something done in another market or a different industry to solve the problem you’re facing.  Look for a similar type of problem that was faced in a different industry and study the solution generated in the other industry.  Then, apply a similar solution to your current problem.

A great example that illustrates Seth Godin’s technique is Henry Ford.  He did not invent the car and was not the first person to start making cars.  And, Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line – it was already being used in other industries.  Henry Ford saw a moving assembly line used in the meat processing industry and developed a powerful innovation by applying the moving assembly line to the production of cars.  This innovation allowed his company to make more vehicles at a lower cost, thereby making the cars affordable to a much larger group of customers.  So, Henry Ford used Seth Godin’s technique of “taking something that worked over there” (moving assembly lines in the meat processing industry)  and “using it over here” (using moving assembly lines to increase vehicle production and reduce cost).

For today’s activity, continue developing innovative ideas that address the innovation opportunity you selected yesterday.  Use the technique discussed above to see how other industries have solved similar problems, and try to adapt that solution to your situation.

Tomorrow I’m going to discuss a critical factor related to being highly productive with your innovative thinking.

Day 7

To develop innovative ideas for your business, you must find your own “innovation environment” that stimulates your creative energy. Although people can generate creative ideas at any time, intentionally placing yourself into the proper environment can produce excellent innovations for your business.

My perfect innovation environment is a peaceful outdoor setting.  One of my favorite environments is sitting along the ocean and letting my brain come to life.  Since I live in Spokane, Washington, it’s a long drive to the ocean, but fortunately we have many mountains, rivers, and lakes nearby.  I escape to these places to relax and identify new ideas for my own business.

I first learned about finding an innovation environment from a cartoon character when I was five years old. That cartoon character is Winnie the Pooh – one of my favorite characters when I was a kid.  But, he’s not just entertainment for kids, he brings an important lesson about innovation to adults!

Since we are all unique, each of us thinks differently and does their most creative thinking in different environments.  If you want to identify innovations and creative ideas, first understand the environment that is most creative for you.

This is where Winnie the Pooh teaches us an important lesson.  Winnie the Pooh has his “thoughtful spot” – the place where he can contemplate important questions, such as what he should do for the day or where to find a pot of honey.  Pooh has found the perfect environment to do his creative thinking.  His thoughtful spot may not be the right environment for other characters, but it is his special place.

You need to find your own “thoughtful spot” to develop creative ideas and new innovations.  The environment that works for you is not necessarily the same environment that fosters creativity in your business partners or co-workers.  So, let others find their own “perfect” environment and don’t try to force them to be creative in your environment – it won’t work.

To identify the environment that is best for your own creative thinking, keep track of where you are, what you are doing, the time of day, and environmental conditions (a busy coffee shop vs. a quiet park) when you develop new ideas.  You will begin to see a pattern develop – this pattern helps define your personal innovation environment.  You can then go to this environment (or create the environment) when you want to boost your creativity.

Your activity today is to start keeping a journal of your creative ideas and the details of your environment when you got the idea.  Over time, you will see trends in this journal to help you clearly define your best innovation environment.

Day 8

I hope you are starting to discover some good ideas using the techniques discussed during the past few days.

Today I want to expand on the idea of your innovation environment I discussed yesterday.  Even if you haven’t discovered your perfect environment yet, I’m going to share a trick that lets you “visit” your innovation environment at any time.

The trick is to make a “virtual” visit to your perfect environment.  Once you have found one or two innovation environments that are perfect for your creative thinking, you can quickly visit that environment “virtually” when you need a creativity boost.  When creating this virtual environment, involve as many senses as possible.  Sight, sound, touch, smell.

My perfect environment is the Northern California coastline – one of my favorite places to vacation.  The scenery and sounds are the perfect stimulus for creative ideas.  When I can’t visit that location in person, I try to recreate the experience in my mind.  I close my eyes and visualize the Pacific Ocean and the rocky coastline.  I hear the wind, birds, and waves crashing into the rocks.  I smell the ocean air, flowers, and trees that grow along the coast.  And, I can feel the tall grass brushing against my legs as I walk along the bluff overlooking the ocean.  This visualization is relaxing for me and has produced many great ideas.

As you identify your own innovation environment, practice making “virtual visits” to that environment to boost your creativity.

Day 9

Today I’m going to share another technique for identifying innovative ideas.  This approach looks for the underlying cause of the problem or issue you are working on.

To find the cause of the problem, work backwards. Start by analyzing the exact problem that you’re facing right now.  What caused the problem in the first place?  In many cases, there’s a series of events that occur prior to the problem.  Look at the problem, then go backwards one step: what happened right before the problem.  Then, go backwards one more step.  Keep doing this until you get to the root cause of the problem.

Now, once you have discovered the true cause of the problem, think about how you can fix that cause of the problem.  If that initial cause is eliminated (or alleviated), the problem itself may disappear.  Or, maybe one of the intermediate events (between the root cause and the final problem) can be eliminated or modified so that the problem does not occur.

Your activity for today is to work backwards from the current problem you’ve been thinking about.  Can you find a way to modify one of the preceding events to eliminate or minimize the problem?

And, if you have not already downloaded my free Innovation Checklist, you can do that today.  The Innovation Checklist complements the information in this 21 Day Innovation Challenge.  Get your free copy of the Innovation Checklist at:  http://innovationchecklist.com/

Day 10

Today is a catch-up day!

I’ve given you plenty of information and activities during the first nine days of the Innovation Challenge.  Today, I’m not going to provide any new information or activities.  Instead, you can catch-up or continue working on the activities discussed during the first nine days.

So, keep working on your innovation opportunity, identify solutions to your opportunity, or test a new environment for your creative thinking.  And, don’t forget to record everything!

Day 11

Brainstorming is a great way to develop creative ideas to grow your business.  I’ve worked with people who come up with great ideas in individual brainstorming sessions, especially when they find the perfect environment to do their creative thinking.  I also have experienced the generation of multiple ideas in a short period of time with brainstorming groups – usually small groups of 4-6 people.

If you’re looking for a way to develop creative ideas for your business, try combining these two activities to produce even greater results.  Here’s the approach I use myself:

  1. Individual Brainstorming – Spend time brainstorming by yourself.  You can brainstorm for new products or creative ideas that solve problems in your own business or in your industry.  Record all of your ideas and don’t lose that list.
  2. Group Brainstorming – Use the ideas on the list you developed during your individual brainstorming process as “seeds” for your group brainstorming discussions. Get together with a few of your team members for a group brainstorming session.  Let the other members of the group further develop your ideas and develop new ideas based on your initial seeds. You can conduct the group brainstorming session in person or through videoconference, such as Skype or Zoom.

I like this two-step approach to brainstorming because it allows you to freely come up with your initial ideas, then expand on those ideas with the input of others.  This approach has produced some great innovations!

Your action step for today is to schedule a group brainstorming session with other team members and brainstorm one of your seed ideas.

Day 12

Unfortunately, there are many myths about innovation and creative thinking that can sabotage your ability to generate new ideas.  Here are some common myths that might be slowing you down.

  1. Innovation is Just for Rocket Scientists. Many people mistakenly believe that you need special training or an advanced degree to generate innovative ideas. However, I have seen countless examples of creative ideas developed by individuals without any formal science or engineering training. These individuals often come up with great ideas because they are not “burdened” by the scientific training of others. They approach problems from a different perspective and do not limit their thinking to existing company products or systems.
  2. Innovation is Not Important Yet. Lots of people think they should wait until their business grows to a particular size to begin developing an innovation strategy. However, many small businesses can bring creative ideas to market faster than large corporations because of their smaller size. If you work in a small business, take advantage of that flexibility and start building your innovation activities today.
  3. Innovation is Only for Technology Companies. Many people believe that innovations are only for technology-based companies. Although technology businesses develop plenty of innovations, any business – regardless of size, location or industry – can develop innovations. These innovative ideas may relate to the company’s products and services as well as internal business procedures.

If you still believe any of these myths, consider a change today to accelerate the growth of your company.  Your activity for today is to continue working on solutions to your innovation opportunity.  And, if any of the above myths pop into your mind – dismiss them immediately!

Day 13

On Day 11, I mentioned group brainstorming activities.  Today, I will expand on that idea.

One great way to consistently foster new innovations is to create an “Innovation Group.”  When I work with companies that are building an innovation program, I often recommend launching a small innovation group (of 6-8 people) instead of a company-wide program.  This smaller pilot program is less disruptive and allows the company to test the innovation program with a few team members.

Create your innovation group by choosing people from different parts of your organization, such as sales, marketing, product development, customer service, and the management team.  An innovation group with a diverse representation of job functions will have different perspectives and bring very different experiences to the discussions.  These differences produce more ideas and much stronger innovations that can provide a bigger impact in your organization.  The innovation group can include employees as well as consultants and independent contractors.  Schedule regular group meetings to discuss innovation opportunities and develop new ideas that benefit the organization.  As the first innovation group proves its ability to generate valuable ideas, you can consider creating additional groups.

If you own or work for a company that wants to launch an innovation program, start with a small innovation group to test the idea and begin developing new ideas.

Day 14

Here’s another technique for identifying innovation opportunities and new ideas that may provide significant value to your business.

Keep watch of current trends in your industry and general trends across all industries.  For example, some current trends include an increasing popularity of wearable technology (e.g., smart watches and activity trackers), sharing of access to goods/services, and the connecting of all types of devices via the Internet.

Identify the current trends that are most likely to impact your business.  Analyze these trends to determine how your existing products and services may change over time based on these trends.  Also, how might these trends impact your overall industry?

Based on your analysis, what kinds of new problems will occur based on the changes caused by these trends.  For example, what kind of security problems may arise in the future due to the increased connectivity of many different devices?

Then, look for solutions to these problems today before the problems have actually occurred.  By solving these future problems, you can have a perfect solution ready as soon as these problems start to occur.

By anticipating upcoming issues, and creating solutions ahead of time, your company is positioned as an industry leader, which provides a strong competitive edge.  Depending on the solution, you might be able to patent the solution which could be a valuable business asset.  I will be discussing intellectual property in more detail in a couple days.

Your activity for today is to be aware of trends affecting your business or your industry and start thinking about how these trends will impact your products or services in the next few years.

Day 15

As you create a growing list of innovative ideas, it is important to evaluate your ideas and prioritize the list.

When I work with clients, we consider multiple factors when evaluating different ideas.  Here are some of the factors to consider:

  • Value to your business (both short-term and long-term)
  • Financial cost to implement the idea
  • Amount of time to implement the idea
  • What’s the likely return on investment (ROI) for the idea
  • “Life” of the idea (how long is it likely to be of value to the company)
  • Is this a “must have” product or feature in your marketplace

Some ideas may not have a huge impact on your business, but if it can be implemented quickly  and inexpensively, it may still be a high priority.  Other ideas may have a much bigger impact on your business (and for a longer period of time), but are more costly to implement.

In some situations, I advise companies to select a first idea that can be implemented fast to get a “quick win”, and select a second idea that may take longer to implement but provides a “must have” feature that will provide value to the company for several years.

Today’s activity:  Schedule regular sessions to work with multiple team members to evaluate and prioritize your list of innovative ideas.

Day 16

As you evaluate your innovative ideas and identify the most valuable ideas be sure to consider how to protect these intellectual property assets.  You need to protect your innovative ideas and inventions just like you would protect any other business asset.

You and your team members invest time, resources, and money to identify and develop these innovative ideas.  And, some of these ideas may lead to inventions that give you a competitive advantage in your market.  If you don’t take appropriate action to protect these innovations, you are effectively “donating” your ideas to your competitors.

So, protect what you have created to prevent copycats from stealing your ideas.  Here’s a brief summary of the most common forms of intellectual property protection.

  1. Copyrights are used to protect an original work of art. That includes articles, photographs, drawings, paintings, music, web site images and designs, and any other creative item.
  2. Trademarks represents a company, a brand or a product. For example, a trademark can be a name (such as NIKE®), a logo (such as Nike’s swoosh logo), or a slogan (such as Nike’s “Just Do It”® slogan).
  3. Patents are used to protect inventions, which can include new devices, new systems, and new processes.

Today’s action item is to start thinking about possible intellectual property protection for your most valuable innovations.  Different types of innovations can be protected with one or more of the forms of intellectual property summarized above.

Day 17

Many of the ideas you have been generating are likely related to the products or services offered by your business.  These are important ideas because they can accelerate your business growth and strengthen your company.

But, it’s also important to think about innovative ideas related to your internal business procedures.  For example, is there a specific process in your business that doesn’t seem to work correctly or seems to frequently disrupt the smooth operation of your company?  If so, spend some time analyzing the process and looking for ways to streamline the steps in that process.

For example, review all of the steps in the internal process.  Is every step necessary?  Can multiple steps be performed simultaneously to speed up the process?  Could a different team member (or different department) perform some of the steps more efficiently?

Spend a few minutes today identifying a procedure in your own business that needs improvement.  Then, use the problems associated with that procedure as innovation seeds during your next brainstorming session.

Day 18

Today I’m going to share some tips for finding innovation seeds based on market gaps and unmet needs.  I have worked with many clients who develop valuable innovations that change their industry because they filled a market gap or solved a problem associated with an entire market.

Your first step is to identify market gaps and unmet needs.  Watch for articles and information that mention “market problems” in:

  • Newspapers
  • Industry magazines
  • Trade publications
  • Online articles about your industry
  • Associations related to your market
  • Social media platforms

Try using an alert service (such as Google Alerts) to partially automate this process.  For example, if your company is in the car loan industry, you could set Google Alerts for “car loan industry problem”, “problems with car loan industry”, and so forth.  Create a list of alert phrases that may be related to someone discussing market gaps or unmet needs.  Once the list of alerts is created, you will receive a daily list of online articles that mention any of your alert phrases.  This doesn’t replace manually reviewing publications and web sites, but it helps automate a portion of the process.

Market gaps and unmet needs are fantastic innovation seeds to start a brainstorming session.  Be sure to add these issues to your growing list of innovation seeds.

Day 19

On Day 12, I mentioned that many people think innovation is just for rocket scientists or people with advanced scientific degrees.  This is not true.

If you’ve been following along during the previous 18 days, you should be creating a list of innovative ideas that can strengthen your business.  Other members of your team can do the same thing.  Each person has a unique background and unique experiences which give them a distinct perspective when approaching problems or identifying innovation opportunities.  Since you are likely seeing success in creating new ideas, you can help your organization by showing other people how to do the same thing.

Eventually, you want every member of your team generating innovative ideas.  But, for today, start with just one person – ask one person on your team to follow this 21 Day Innovation Challenge so you start developing even more ideas for your business.  You can encourage this person by sharing your own experience and help them follow the Innovation Challenge just like you did.

Day 20

As you create your new innovation habits, I recommend scheduling several “creative time blocks” each week.  As little as three creative time blocks (at least 10 minutes each) can significantly increase the number of ides you generate each week.  If you can schedule more time, that’s even better.  Put these time blocks on your calendar and treat them as you would any other important meeting.

During each creative time block, you can 1) work on identifying new innovation seeds, 2) brainstorming about previously identified innovation seeds, or 3) review your notes from your last brainstorming session and try to further refine the ideas from that last session.  Your time blocks can be used for individual brainstorming or group brainstorming activities.

Remember to visit your innovation environment (in person or virtually) to get the best results from your creative time blocks.

For today, schedule at least three creative time blocks and add them to your calendar.

Day 21

Congratulations!  You have completed the 21 Day Innovation Challenge.

At this point, you should have discovered several new innovative ideas and started using the system described during the challenge for creating innovations that solve problems and grow your business.

Don’t stop now.  The past 21 days are just the start of your new innovation habits.  Keep practicing the systems and techniques discussed during the challenge.  And, have other team members go through the 21 Day Innovation Challenge as a first step to building a strong innovation culture in your organization.

I would love to know your experience with the challenge.  Please email me your comments, questions, and success stories at:  steve@stevesponseller.com

Thanks for participating in this challenge.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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14 thoughts on “21 Day Innovation Challenge

  1. Ideas I have in abundance 🙂 Need to transform them into income without getting stuck or quitting right before they come to fruition. Thanks for the challenge… I have my notebook and pen always with me!

  2. I’m starting to record my ideas as a part of this innovation challenge, Steve. And I actually have some of those Aqua Notes you mentioned, a gift from someone who has used them for a few years now. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and expertise with us here.

    Connie Ragen Green

  3. Thanks Steve for the opportunity to come along with you on this “innovation challenge”.
    I am looking forward to the journey.
    I have my pen and pencil. I use the notes on phone regularly and making my list of things to “fix”.

    Shirley Noah

  4. I’ve added an “innovation burst” to my weekly team meetings, where everyone has three minutes to share their wildest dream or impossible idea about our business. This is my way of loosening everyone up before I launch an innovation group.
    Connie Ragen Green