Crisscrossing the country, I’ve interviewed 200 of today’s creative business leaders including the founders of LinkedIn, Under Armour, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Airbnb, JetBlue, Dropbox and many others.
Trained as a sociologist and equipped with an MBA, I’ve also drilled down through the latest academic research and applied scientific methodology to crack the code on what it takes to create and scale ideas in our rapidly changing economy.
Without exception, I found that creators of companies as diverse as Yelp, Chobani, and Zipcar, all share—and have honed—six essential skills that can be learned, practiced, and passed on:
1. Find the Gap
By staying alert, creators spot opportunities that others don’t see. They keep their eyes open for fresh potential, a vacuum to fill, or an unmet need. Creators tend to use one of three distinct techniques: transplanting ideas across divides, designing a new way forward, or merging disparate concepts. I characterize creators who master these approaches as Sunbirds, Architects, or Integrators.
How can you find and fill gaps at work? Start by asking questions. Ask yourself, why does a concept work in one place and how can be reapplied in another domain? What unaddressed problems exist? What would happen if you combined two disparate ideas?
2. Drive for Daylight
Just as race-car drivers keep their eyes fixed on the road ahead, creators focus on the future, knowing that where they go, their eyes go first. Creators move too fast to navigate by the confines of their lane or the position of their peers.
How can you set up an environment that allows you to focus? Set your sights on the horizon. Creators navigate around distractions by keeping their long-term mission in mind. Remind yourself on a daily basis of the big picture of where you want to go. Scan the edges. Stay alert to ideas on the periphery that have the potential to go mainstream. Also avoid nostalgia. Those who set the pace in a fast-moving marketplace are not emotional about successes and failures.
Keep your focus always forward to shape what comes next.
3. Fly the OODA Loop
Creators continuously update their assumptions. In rapid succession, they observe, orient, decide, and act. Like legendary fighter pilot John Boyd, who pioneered the idea of the “OODA loop,” creators move nimbly from one decision to the next. They master fast-cycle iteration and in short order gain an edge over less agile competitors.
To put this into practice, look for inconsistencies. When you see a glitch or anomaly, jump on it. Many of us experience what academics call “tactic awareness.” We detect something out of the corner of our eye that doesn’t seem quite right but we rationalize it away. Don’t dismiss what doesn’t make sense. Use it to your advantage. Orient quickly to take in new information and make quick decisions knowing that you’ll have the chance to make more decisions in rapid succession. By flying a tighter loop than your competitor you stay one step ahead.
4. Fail Wisely
Creators understand that experiencing a series of small failures is essential to avoiding catastrophic mistakes. In the course of practicing and mastering this skill, they set what I call failure ratios, placing small bets to test ideas and developing resilience as they bounce back from missteps. They hone the skill to turn setbacks into successes.
What should you do when you fail? Understand that setbacks are a step on the path to success. Spanx founder Sara Blakely describes how her father would ask at the dinner table what she had failed at that week. He was only disappointed when she had nothing to report. Blakely failed at singing and failed at sports. She bombed the LSAT and started her career as a door-to-door fax machine saleswoman. None of that stopped her from becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012. The idea is to move through failure with a willingness to learn, re-gear, and rebound smarter and stronger than before.
5. Network Minds
To solve multifaceted problems, creators bring together the brainpower of diverse individuals through on- and off-line forums. They harness cognitive diversity to build on each other’s ideas. To do this, creators design shared spaces, foster flash teams, hold prize competitions, and build work-related games. They collaborate with unlikely allies.
Each of us holds a unique point of view. We differ as convergent and divergent thinkers, introverts and extroverts, anthropologists and engineers. We have different strengths that we bring to solving a problem. Yet often people are reluctant to speak up or express a divergent point of view. You can set yourself apart by overcoming a common reluctance to speak up when in a like-minded group.
6. Gift Small Goods
Creators unleash generosity by helping others, often by sharing information, pitching in to complete a task, or opening opportunities to colleagues. Offering kindness may not seem like a skill, but it’s an essential way that creators strengthen relationships. In an increasingly transparent and interconnected world, generosity makes creators more productive.
A real-life example of how you can help someone else is by forwarding a resume. Making an introduction takes little time but can unlock tremendous opportunity for others, and that creates goodwill. “It’s not as if others will lie across railroad tracks for you, but they will think about how things could be useful for you,” cofounder of LinkedIn Reid Hoffman says. By gifting small goods, or offering small kindnesses in the workplace, you become the type of colleague that others want to work with.
For this post, YouTern thanks our friends at Levo League!
About the Author: Amy Wilkinson is a strategic adviser, entrepreneur, and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. A sought-after speaker, she frequently addresses audiences on entrepreneurial leadership, and advises start-ups and large corporations on innovation and business strategy. She has held leadership roles with McKinsey & Company and J.P. Morgan, and founded a small, foreign-based export company.