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5 innovation lessons from one of America’s Greatest Makers

It’s hard not to feel inspired when watching America’s Greatest Makers. The Intel-sponsored TBS show follows the path of 24 teams that pitch ideas for cutting-edge wearable and tech devices. Five teams ultimately made it to the battle rounds, where they competed for the $1 million grand prize, with Team Grush taking the win on May 24.

We recently sat down to talk with America’s Greatest Makers contestant Oren Levy (@auxren), who was recharging after a day spent at Maker Faire. An electrical engineer and product designer by trade, Levy and teammate Meredith Scheff-King (@LadyCartoonist) comprised Team Tabor. Their project was The Quill, described as “a wearable music controller that pairs with your smart devices and lets you easily play music using movements that come naturally to you.” To learn more about what goes on in the mind of one of America’s greatest innovators, we picked Levy’s brain for more insights into his process and how he works.

1. Learn from your mistakes

Even the most innovative minds learn from trial and error. Regardless of whether you’re working on an innovation project on national television or with your IT colleagues in a cramped office, there’s value in screwing up and starting over.

“I learned that everyone works differently,” Levy said, “even though everyone had the same end goal in mind. I learned a lot from problem-solving. No one is perfect. Every time I go through the process [of product design] I learn from my mistakes.”

2. Seek fresh perspectives

Levy’s background in engineering served as a strong asset in product design. He was able to quickly evaluate what is—and isn’t—possible. However, Levy emphasized the value of working with “amazing idea people with far-out ideas that sound awesome. Every team needs someone who can think out of the box.”

When asked how to source these out-of-the-box thinkers for innovation projects, Levy admitted that he believes it all boils down to finding collaborators who have diverse sets of experience. “It’s not necessarily related to their age or background, but really comes from experiences.”

In an IT setting, this fresh perspective could come from a teammate, but it could also come from an end user, with little experience in the technical workings of IT projects. Even if their ideas aren’t possible or pragmatic, hearing a new perspective could allow you to innovate in truly original ways.

3. Question the “why”

Levy is a firm believer in the power of asking “why?” An important lesson he has learned is to get insight into a collaborator’s thought process. “If they say ‘Hey, I recommend not doing that,’ [they’re] coming from a place of experience to come to that conclusion. Even if you aren’t going to include their advice, it can be important to understand their barriers.”

This lesson has value for IT pros and innovators well outside the boundaries of televised competitions. Understanding the context behind other people’s advice can inform better decision-making and guide communications.

4. Thoroughly plan and prototype

Levy isn’t hesitant to indulge in deep thought when he’s immersed in tough problem-solving. I asked Levy to describe his typical process when he’s approaching an innovation project, either on America’s Greatest Makers or in other settings. “It depends on if I’m working alone or not,” he said. “I usually think about the project at hand and what I’m trying to accomplish, and perform natural prototyping in my head. When I’m on deadline, I’m especially careful to plan steps carefully. I’ll typically lay dormant for a while, and then spring into action.”

While working on the show, Levy and his teammate spent “two and a half months at home thinking and working, and the last two weeks were primarily all-nighters.”

Despite the gruelling schedule, there’s value in Levy’s process. Careful planning and prototyping—whether in an individual, technology-assisted, or team-based setting—can allow you to hit the pavement at full speed when it’s crunch time.

5. Recharge—really!

Despite his success as one of America’s greatest innovators before age 30, Levy isn’t quite a 24/7 workaholic. Both Levy and Scheff-King are musicians, which inspired the musical bent of their Quill project. Levy admits that when he’s not engineering new products, he’s playing music, but his drive to create and test what’s possible doesn’t always make this a relaxing activity. By spending some time enjoying his other hobby, cooking, he’s able to unwind and recharge mentally.

America’s Greatest Makers offers more than just a chance for IT pros to spend an hour each week nerding out. It’s real insight into how some of the most talented and creative technologists today go about working. Whether you’ve been tasked with implementing IoT devices or cutting back your budget, there are innovation lessons to be learned from Levy and his peers.