Imagine your country is experiencing a terrible drought. You’re forced to drop out of school because there’s no money to cover the basic school fees. Reading a book in the local library, you discover that windmills can generate energy. So what do you do?
If you’re 14-year-old William Kamkwamba, you resolve to build a windmill in your village. Undeterred by age, lack of formal education or resources, Kamkwamba spent months building a windmill out of scrap materials. As he worked on his project, the villagers mocked him and told him he was crazy, but he refused to let that stop him.
Keep in mind Kamkwamba had never seen a windmill in real life. He could have easily decided that building one was too challenging, or even infeasible. But he was convinced that if someone, somewhere had built one, he could do it too. And he was motivated by necessity: he understood the great benefit a windmill would have for his family and village. A book has since been written about this entrepreneurial young man, he received a scholarship to go back to school and he’s been a featured speaker on TV and at conferences.
As I read Kamkwamba’s story, I thought about what makes great experimenters and innovators:
Curiosity — Curiosity fuels learning, and drives experimentation.
Need — Experimenters and innovators identify unmet needs. They look for ways to create new things, or improve on what already exists. They don’t settle for the status quo.
Belief — They believe in their ability to create something better.
Perseverance — They aren’t deterred by what others say or think, and they never quit even in the face of ridicule.
As leaders, one of our jobs is to promote experimentation and innovation in ourselves, and in others. We create conditions where employees are supported to be curious, identify unmet needs, believe in the outcome and have the courage to follow through.
Assess your organization’s current experimentation climate. Do you and other senior leaders make it easy for people to introduce new ideas?
If your assessment reveals that you aren’t doing enough to promote experimentation, identify a few concrete behaviors you can use to energize the environment. Set personal and team targets for idea generation. Post the numbers of ideas generated on a daily basis. Set a challenge for increasing the number of ideas submitted on a daily basis for the first week. Be bold when you set your targets. Whatever number that first comes to mind, raise it higher.
You might also sponsor a contest, create innovation spaces and showcase great innovations to send the message that you’re serious about experimentation. New and improved ideas and products are born of an intentional desire to improve, an enthusiasm for the possibilities and a willingness to try and try again until you get it right. Start applying the behaviors of experimentation and innovation personally and watch the positive impact you have on your business results both individually and collectively.
Donna Rae Smith is founder and CEO at Bright Side Inc.