That's a hard question. Especially because I'm always wary of using such an ambiguous term. And more so, when there are far more qualified people to answer out there.
Since I have been asked the question, I am jotting down my thoughts on the subject here (the usual disclaimers apply):
I think the question really is about how impactful can a person be, rather than this nebulous word called "innovative." In fact, I hate the word "innovation", because the focus should be about problem solving.
Innovation (regardless of its definition) is almost always the by-product of a successfully executed product. You don't start by wanting to be innovative. You start by looking at interesting hard problems. You only end up being innovative. So, Solve the Problem first.
For example, I always find it amusing to see the feedback on isbn.net.in - people have said "It's awesome! It's wonderful!" I replied "It's just a bunch of regexes!" ... But it just goes to show that what matters is how much the user values it, not how it is implemented.
Now, back to topic: If you want to be able to attack interesting hard problems, then my honest opinion is that you need to keep this equation in mind:
Creativity x Organization = Impact
Regarding Creativity / Ideas:
- "If you think you don't have any good ideas, that's because you don't really have bad ideas. You get one good idea only after you get a hundred bad ideas." -- paraphrasing Seth Godin in his latest book Linchpin.
- Frequent Inspiration helps. A lot. Keep reading Springwise, Yanko Design, Quirky everyday and you'll be inspired to "innovate" as well.
- Observe. "If you're looking for problems to solve, you're better off to be around real people whose problems can be solved via your trade (such as software)." -- RWW article
- Follow the Trends, such as Gartner Identifies the Top 10 Consumer Mobile Applications for 2012 and 10 Tech Trends for 2010 -- Time , and more importantly the kinds of technology and products that are being created, follow those "cutting edge" technologies that we love to adore and wonder "Wow, how did they come up with this stuff?"
But you have to be careful when ideating, because it is very easy to get into "analysis paralysis":
Another important thing is to not get so carried away by the shiny new things that you forget the basics:
Regarding Organization / Discipline
- There is this guy in Adobe Bangalore office who is a "patent machine." He files for a patent every two weeks. No kidding. And these weren't only trivial ones either. What was his trick? He spent a dedicated half hour every single day on thinking up new ideas or solving problems. It's as simple as that. This is called the Seinfeld "Unbroken Chain" philosophy.
- Body and Mind need a predictable routine and that's when it's optimal. And once it has a routine, it is hard for the body and mind to accept any other way. That's why smokers find it so hard to get out of their addiction, because body and mind is used to it and is craving for it. Same goes for coffee, same goes for writing code, same goes for creating new ideas. It is so ironic that discipline breeds creativity. It's a truth that we don't want to accept, because it makes us sound less "human".
- Don't judge an idea to be good or bad until you have tried to manually solve it yourself once or prototyped it. After your first attempt at solving the problem, if you still feel good about it and feel that some pain point has been relieved, then it is a good idea. Take Jack Dorsey's simple approach to creating as an example: draw out the idea, gauge the right timing, and iterate like mad.
- Focus on the problem, not the solution. As Dave McClure says: "problem, not solution. customer, not technology. UX, not code. distribution, not PR. acq cost, not revenue projections."
- As Seth Godin would say, "Artists who ship" have the most impact. Read Linchpin to internalize it.
- What is your impact? Can you qualify it? Can you quantify it? Measure it every month - Within 6 months, you will know whether you are "innovative."
Update #2: See 10 Laws of Productivity by Behance team.