I remember clearly how, a few years ago, colleagues, customers, and business partners expressed surprise at how young I was while marveling at the extent of my knowledge and skills.
I had spent a few days off-site (mainly next to a whiteboard) with the VP of Sales and the Technical Account Director, reviewing the needs of a multi-million-dollar customer and presenting the product design. At the end of this fruitful week, after both sides had worked and socialized together, I was asked how old I was. I responded that I was 26. First, they were quiet for a moment. Then they said that now they were really impressed.
Those days are over. Time passed and nobody is impressed by my age anymore.
I wanted to share the lessons I learnt over the years on how—despite one’s age—to stay on top of things, specifically in the changing environments of technology, work culture, and methodologies.
Tip 1 - Shake up your comfort zone.
It’s easy to find yourself in a comfort zone, especially after you have spent many years in the same industry and position, doing the things that you know and that you are good at. However, stagnation can result in the loss of motivation and creativity. The bigger risk is that, if you ever need to find a new job, doing so may become difficult because of how you would be perceived.
Every few years, I force myself out of my comfort zone. For example, after shutting down my startup, I took a product position at a cloud infrastructure company. The product was highly technical—far beyond anything I had ever done. I didn’t have technical education or expertise. However, the new position pushed me out of my comfort zone. It made me learn new technologies, a new market, and a new approach toward doing business with technology-oriented users. Following the learning curve, I was able to contribute to the product and the company’s success. Even more than that, I was full of energy and the confidence that I could learn and do anything I desired.
Set a timeline according to which, every few years, you will switch markets, technologies, and types of organizations. You’ll enjoy learning new things as well as meeting new people.
Tip 2 - Get hands-on: Move up and down the hierarchy.
Years pass and many employees get promoted to managerial positions. With promotion comes compensation. However, the caveat is that you lose contact with the hands-on work. Even worse than that, you never get the chance to use current technologies, tools, and/or methodologies to do the “real” work. This lessens your ability to understand the current work environment as well as to make a shift if necessary. You may also lose the common ground that exists between you and the people who are actually doing the hands-on work.
To keep up with the hands-on activity, you should feel confident enough to take a less-senior position in your next job. Possibly earn a smaller salary for a couple of years. You’ll benefit from proving that you are capable of handling both hands-on and management work, as well as that you can adjust over time. This will remove another barrier between you and your next promotion or job.
Tip 3 - Be an expert in whatever is your weak point.
It’s crucial to identify the weak points that will prevent you from getting your next job. My weak point was user experience design. After working for many years at the level of director and VP, I didn’t have the skills or the experience to demonstrate that I could design UX. This was because the tools, methodologies, and responsibilities had changed dramatically over time.
I decided to become an expert in this domain. I learnt the latest tools, built my own methodology, and offered my services as an expert. I used platforms such as Fiverr, plus I spread the word to everyone I knew. Soon, I had become an expert and was offering an innovative approach, both in my day job and as a freelancer. In addition, I published articles on my approach, which gained interest.
Whatever your weak point is, you can easily turn it into a competitive edge.
Tip 4 - Find out what you love and learn from the young.
Doing what you love will fill you with energy and help you learn and stay relevant over time. “What you love” doesn’t mean simply “I love doing business development.” Rather, it is those aspects of business development that are fun for you and that make you happy. It could be the actual deal-making. It could be the long-term relationships you create. It could be the impact of a partnership on so many users. Or it could be simply the impressive list of partnerships established thanks to your efforts.
Find it and focus on it. Focusing on what you love will enable you to learn new things. It will also help you learn new approaches from your younger colleagues.
In recent years, many innovation officers and managers, experts, consultants, and courses, as well as endless content, have focused on how to embrace and promote innovation.
These methodologies offer great insights but you should start at the basics.
Forget most of what the innovation experts have to say. I want to share, from my experience, tips on how to engage in innovation as an integral part of your day-to-day work.
Tip 1 - Engage in tactics, think strategy
Many companies appoint a person or team to lead innovation. This is wrong. Don’t place the responsibility only on a director of innovation or any other such role.
Instead, use a hands-on approach, dealing with ongoing tasks and deliveries. Discover the tactics of users, data, development, sales, and the market. This is the best way to understand your users’ motivations and the actual assets that you have. Innovation will naturally follow.
In other words, you can’t really understand what makes your users act and what makes the market tick if you don’t deal with the daily specifics. You can’t really know which aspects of your product and/or technology are actually unique and which parts create substantial value, unless you directly engage.
Tip 2 - Team diversity
I hear my colleagues saying that they will interview only candidates who have years of experience in our industry. This is wrong. The more diverse your team is in terms of culture, education, and background, the more creative, motivated, and synergetic it will be.
A range of expertise will expand the overall scope of your solutions. It allows you to benefit from the knowledge and experience of other domains. For example, working on a consumer app from the perspective of a background in networking will lead to superb performance.
Fill your team with people who have a mixed background in terms of technology, platforms (desktop, mobile), types of users, and types of solutions. People working in a new domain also tend to be more motivated and creative.
Tip 3 - Think & plan annually, act daily
Structure your mindset, and that of your team, toward delivering on innovation. I do it by setting annual goals that represent new product domains, new business models, and/or new audiences.
For example, “deliver a data product” or “tap into the workflow of…” or “migrate to … pricing model”.
I start every day (after I’m done with the daily standup meeting) by looking again at my annual goals. Then I update my daily goals and ensure that my weekly and monthly goals include elements of the annual ones.
This way, I ensure that, every week, I pursue the long-term goals that require innovation.
Tip 4 - Load yourself by offloading your official job
People tend to think that if they’re overloaded, they need to handle fewer tasks and be more focused. This is true. However, to offload pressure from your brain and motivate it to be creative, you actually need to “overload” it with a wide variety of activities and topics.
The best advice I can give you is to take a side project or job, a voluntary responsibility, and/or help others with what you are good at. You’ll benefit in two ways. First, you will be very focused on what matters the most in your daily activities. Second, you will discover new directions for thinking and will generate creativity.
It’s like magic. Suddenly, the urgent, ongoing matters won’t put so much pressure on you and ideas will start to float.
Gal Ofel is an experienced product innovation manager, marketer and entrepreneur. Recently, Gal founded and launched Zoostr, the mobile and desktop solution for entrepreneurs.