Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Right Livelihood and 7 Charateristics of Frugal Innovators

I recently stumbled across a 1994 essay on Mindfulness and Meaningful Work that characterized people engaged in, what Buddhists refer to as, right livelihood. Coincidentally many of the items the author1 listed also apply to the many innovators I've met or have read about.
  • Persistent: Innovators have to be able to overcome the inevitable obstacles that occur in the early stages of any breakthrough project.
  • Realistic: Or as the author puts it, the ability to "face the facts". While persistence and perseverance are important, recognizing and accepting that something isn't likely to work out is just as critical. Deciding whether to move forward or change direction, often requires a certain amount of maturity and experience.
  • Overall strategy is to "minimize risks": Innovators who understand the existing product landscape, are more likely to come up with solutions that meet the needs of customers. In the case of frugal innovation, many of the famous examples are products explicitly designed to meet the needs of working class consumers in the developing world. This doesn't mean that one should avoid working on bold ideas. But becoming a successful entrepreneur does require contingency planning.
  • Active participant (preference for hands-on learning): Knowing the details of particular tasks and how they fit into a larger framework, are needed in order to design products, services, and solutions that meet the needs of customers. In the context of market research, I'm reminded of what ethnographers refer to as "deep hanging out".
  • Self-starter: There is no substitute for working on things that interest and engage you. But at some point executing on your ideas means  routine and not-so-inspiring tasks need to be done. Paying attention to routine aspects of a project sometimes leads to insights about further improvements that your final product can provide. (Building on the Buddhist perspective that I'm borrowing from, it's worth noting that those steeped in mindfulness practice, swear that mindfulness helps them experience "flow" even when they're faced with seemingly mundane tasks.)
  • Community member: It's much easier to innovate when one has a support structure in place. Start with friends and family, but expand to a network of (online) friends with similar interests and passions. Reciprocity is important in healthy relationships: you have to  nurture and support those that do the same for you.
  • Knows how to manage time and money: Time and money are essential to any new venture. Learning how to manage time and money frees you to pursue your ideas. Without adequate resources, you frequently have to postpone working on your pet projects. Similarly if you mismanage your time (e.g., by overextending yourself), your resources may prove inadequate to fund your projects.


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