Are all innovators alike?

Are all innovators alike?

Nuances and details are lost in the sea of bullshit that is media and human irrationality, and an outcome is one of the most dangerous things humans do: build people up to more than they probably are.

Sure, the world needs heroes that carry a positive narrative that others can latch on to and get inspired to make a story of their own. My heroes are Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan. You have your own, for your own personal reasons.

And just like you and I have our own motivations for why we do something, what we do and how we do it; so do other potential innovators.

Truth is, that in a world where people are fitted into boxes, everyone has their own creative style. Some people are more systematic than others, and some of us are more intuitive. I believe that failing to understand this distinction between people is a huge innovation obstacle!

Innovation is a mindset

I squirm whenever I get asked for silver bullet ideas, frameworks and the like for innovation. There is this assumption that because you’ve done something before that you have a map to do it all over again. But innovation is quite different from most efficiency-driven activities we do on a daily basis. It is messy and takes time. More than anything , it requires coming up with a new formula.

While I’m focusing on the micro level of innovation in this post, if we zoom out and look at how the most innovative companies in the world innovate, you will see that they are all distinctive in their own way. The only thing they share in common is a mindset. Everything else, strategy and tactics, is not the same.

Let’s consider Apple, Google and Amazon. We could easily say that Apple is systematic in their approach to innovation. You won’t see Apple playing around and beta testing MVP’s in the market. Google, on the other hand, is more experimental. Everything they do is in beta, and disruptive in nature. Amazon is a hybrid. Bezos has a long term view, but is also keen on inventing and experimenting with any part of the business.

And you know what? All of these companies approach to innovation reflects the personality of their founder.

This is the most important insight you can take away: innovative companies are led by innovative leaders. And if they are not innovative, they will either create the conditions for other innovators to succeed, or simply get the heck out of the way!

Independent thinking is an important trait of innovators

Another trait of innovators is a complete disregard for conventional wisdom. For example, I’m an extremist. And that tendency is amplified by my analytical-intuitive creative style. I’ll immerse myself in the problem/challenge to develop a feeling for it, to get to the bottom of things. There isn’t a set time for how much that takes but it’s long enough to the point where I feel like I’ve covered enough ground, questioned my own thinking, and developed my own opinion.

That last point is key.

But the execution part, for me, that’s little more chaotic. Pushing boundaries, shaking things up and experimentation are my forte. I certainly craft and follow a plan, but expect surprises. This is a reason why I’m not a fan of frameworks.

Whenever someone asks me how I came up with an idea my response is very simple: it just came to me.

This is how ideas come to us, they need time to marinate in our brains. There are lots of sausage-making tools being hawked for strategy and innovation work, but good ideas don’t come out of mechanical tools. Frameworks may help us get oriented, but, in the end, good ideas basically just pop into our heads. It’s called insight.

But, I’ve come understand that most people don’t question their own thinking, so they need more structure to get them thinking in that direction to understand things from another point of view they’ve never considered. This is where frameworks are useful, but frankly they won’t fill people with courage.

For me, the ability to think about your own thinking, to make judgments about your own judgments; is more important than any so-called strategy concept, tool, matrix, or analytical framework.

Simply put: innovation is a mindset. But, if you haven’t developed the mindset, it doesn’t mean you can’t innovate.

Innovation is a team sport

Individually, we don’t innovate in a vacuum. Innovation is a team sport, and we all fill a different role in the journey.

To put it more analytical for you, according to a recent Forbes Insights study, there are five major personalities crucial to fostering a healthy atmosphere of innovation within an organization:

  • Movers & Shakers. Bold and sometimes brash, these innovators were described by Forbes as the visionaries with a noted ability to influence others. Along with their showmen qualities seem to be just enough impatience arrogance to boot. Executives identified in this category make up 22% of those surveyed.
  • Experimenters. Perseverance and perfectionism mark this curious innovator. This category is described as less concerned with failure but more concerned with pushing through a new idea or initiative. Coming in at 16% of all executives surveyed, this type seems to be consistent with many of our traditional notion of entrepreneurial innovators.
  • Hangers-On.  Attention to process and comfort in structure seem to be describers of this category. Forbes describes a concentration of this type of innovator in roles such as CFO/Treasurer. Executives identified as this type make up 23% of the total surveyed.
  • Controllers. With characteristics that seem compatible with Hangers-On, Controller innovators are described as markedly risk-averse, and tend to find their forte in managing the vision rather than creating it. Innovators of this type made up 15% of all surveyed.
  • Star Pupils. This category is the undeniable talent. Essential to start-ups and full-blown enterprises these individuals are likely sought-out for their superstar skills and A+ report cards. And judging by the fact that they make up the largest slice, they may be rewarded grandly for the skills they bring to the table. Star Pupils made up 24% of innovator executives surveyed.

What they fail to mention in the list above, is that the team needs to be diverse enough to where expert and group think are abolished. So, I would add another personality: Renaissance Men or Zero Gravity Thinkers. These are the people who can reframe context and connect the dots differently!

Finally, every company’s culture is inherently different. So when you’re cultivating innovation, you’re cultivating a unique system. Which means you have to be thoughtful about your approach. The ideal scenario is for everyone to be able to play any role, to have a form-shifting culture where nobody gets tied down in their own thinking and habits; but this is an outlier view.

Ultimately, I believe, most innovators share three qualities:

  1. Knowledge in their expert area where everyone places him in the top few percent;
  2. Wide knowledge and a curiosity about almost everything;
  3. Respect for how things are done but willing with reason to try something different, often to take something from that wide field of knowledge and apply it where it has never been considered. They realize that things can always be improved, and you need to test the boundaries to find improvements.

Bottom line: Innovation is a team sport, and people play a different role. Innovators certainly share key skills than anyone can develop, but it is wise to understand that everyone is different in their own way, and that in most situation not everyone is cut out to be a leader.

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