What Makes Someone An Innovator?

With most organizations striving to be more innovative, it’s perhaps understandable that there are attempts to understand what separates innovative people from their more conservative peers.  It’s a topic that New York University’s Melissa Schilling tackles in her latest book Quirky, in which she examines the lives of some of the most innovative people of the last few hundred years to see if there are any common characteristics that bind them together.

She examines people ranging from Einstein to Curie, Tesla to Edison, Musk to Jobs, and what is striking about their lives is how fundamentally different they are to many of us.  Their lives come with many costs attached that would be too much for many to bare.

Thankfully, she outlines a number of characteristics that are perhaps more accessible for us all that can nonetheless help to uncover the innovator within us.

Challenging norms

Many of the innovators Schilling covers were outsiders, and she argues that this was crucial to their ability to buck the norm because they were less exposed and indoctrinated to what the norm actually was.  What’s more, being an outsider meant that even when they were exposed to norms, they were less inclined to adopt them.

In terms of organizational strategies, she suggests giving people flexible roles and high levels of autonomy, whilst also having a robust tolerance for the unorthodox.  This will help to encourage creativity from all employees rather than just those in ‘official’ innovation roles.

What’s more, leaders can do much more to encourage constructive dissent, especially of those with authority.  This allows for a diversity of opinion that will support innovation.

Proving time alone

The wealth of evidence against open plan offices is quite considerable now, and the latest office designs provide dedicated spots for quiet concentration.  This is especially important during periods of ideation, as brainstorming is well known to squash ideas on the altar of conformity and groupthink.

Schilling highlights how organizations are competitive places for ideas, and premature exposure can kill off great ideas before they’re developed enough to stand on their own two feet.  To avoid this, she advocates creating skunk works style groups that are buffered from the rest of the organization, and indeed from each other, to allow ideas to thrive.

Building self-efficacy

Confidence in your ability to succeed is fundamental to any innovation as the process is so very difficult.  A great way to help develop that confidence is through early wins.

Schilling uses the example of Procter & Gamble to illustrate how organizations can achieve this by lowering the price of failure, and maybe even celebrating those flops that nonetheless deliver valuable insights.  It’s an attempt to indoctrinate fearlessness in the face of failure that underpins any successful innovation.

Inspiring grand ambitions

Idealism was a thread that ran throughout all of the great innovators covered by Schilling, and the ability to tap into a overriding purpose is vital to sustain the kind of energy levels required to innovate.

Some organizations have this built into their mission statements, whether it’s Google’s ambition to organize the world’s information or Bristol-Myers Squibb’s to extend and enhance human life.  There is no shortage of evidence highlighting the value having a sense of purpose has, both for individuals and organizations, and this is certainly true with innovation.

Finding intrinsic motivators

Flow is that mythical state we enter into when we’re truly absorbed by our task.  It’s a state that has been explored at length by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but there has also been extensive work undertaken into the benefits of intrinsic motivation in encouraging not only great work, but innovative work.

Provide access to technological and intellectual resources

All of the innovators chronicled in Schilling’s book were avid readers, and having access to knowledge is crucial for innovation.  This is especially so for the latest research, as recombinating ideas already in existence is a huge part of modern innovation.  What’s more, those innovations often come from people who aren’t part of the establishment of their field.

We’re living in a golden age for information, with vast quantities of content freely available online, and a growing number of academic papers open access.  This provides outsiders with the means to learn and understand the problem in fresh ways that often elude people who are super-specialized in their craft.

As with any analysis there are sure to be a wide range of circumstantial and environmental factors that went into helping the ‘master innovators’ do their work, but even with that, I think we can all see the sense in the recommendations Schilling makes to lend a helping hand to the innovators in our own midsts.

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