Innovation has been the buzzword for the last couple of years. Most of the business magazines and enterprises from different industries are using this word as their new ‘motto’. Just as a few decades ago, there were similar buzzwords, for example, everything had to be around TQM (Total Quality Management) and re-engineering. A few years later, especially after the success of Japanese companies in USA, Lean became the standard for every company in a wide range of industries. Soon after, Six Sigma and its 3.4 defects per million were introduced by Motorola and then some mixes became popular just like Lean Six Sigma or even DFSS (Design for Six Sigma).
There has always been the question if these ideologies, tools, theories or concepts are actually something real, helpful and enduring or if it is just a fad. There are always parties that, in pursue of being part of a trend, diminish the real value of a concept. For example, 2012 will be declared “The year of the innovation” by the Mexican government. Is innovation becoming a fad?
One definition of innovation by Peter Drucker is “Change that creates a new dimension of performance”. What percentage of the self-proclaimed innovative companies fit this definition? Some ideological management movements have not been completely successful and had some important issues that they did not take into consideration. One example is the re-engineering movement during the 80’s where “Reengineering regressed into the old industrial engineering and that regressed into the big scare. People think they’re going to be reduced to rubble by reengineering. Organizations forget to remind them that they have skills they can apply to a changed work environment and they can learn new ones.” (Davenport, 1995)
However there are valuable lessons to learn from this pass fads and its mistakes, as Davenport summarizes in his article, “[…] start with a question: ‘Would I like this management approach applied to me and my job?’ If the answer is yes, do it to yourself first. You’ll set a great example.” (Davenport, 1995). This is where the innovators steps in.
Before defining how an innovator thinks, I see that true innovators must strive for the growth and success of their company and their focus must not be in being part of the trend, use the buzzword or just use it as a marketing strategy. The job of an innovator is to develop an ‘innovation factory’ which is “[…] a company’s only sustainable path to long-term economic growth” (Ries, 2011). Therefore, it implies that a desirable future of a company rests in its ability to develop this factory; hence, it is the job of an innovator to develop and be part of this factory.
Through the next paragraphs, I will venture to answer the following questions throughout this essay: What makes an innovator different from ‘ordinary’ people? How does an innovator think? There is different literature about this topic that focus on different perspectives, for example it can be focused on attitude, personality or skills. These different perspectives will be discussed and a conclusion will follow with personal comments.
First of all, “all innovations begins with vision” (Ries, 2011), an innovator must have a vision of what he is trying to achieve, the problem he wants to solve or the pain that he wants to relief. A typical example of successful innovators with a very clear vision are the ones at Procter & Gamble: “Our purpose is to improve their everyday lives [customer’s] in small but meaningful ways with brands and products that continually deliver superior performance, quality, an value better than the competition” (Charan & Lafley, 2008). Having a clear and defined vision helps guide the thinking of an innovator into meaningful ways and with a sense of direction.
However, having a vision is not enough. Langer argues a very compelling case about our attitude towards our everyday life. She calls it mindless versus mindfulness. The first one refers to our attitude as we grow up and learn where we tend to learn how things ‘should be’ and it becomes more difficult to notice the deviations. While the latter, refers to “actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things”. This attitude towards the aspects of any of life fosters innovation because we create options to ourselves, and become aware of how things change depending on the perspective and context (Langler, 2008). Being mindfulness embraces uncertainty, a feeling that causes anxiety in most people but should feel natural for innovators.
An innovator is a ‘Design Thinker’, according to Brown. His argument and description of a design thinker leans toward the personality perspective. A design thinker is empathic (1), that means that he can imagine the world from different perspectives and are able to imagine solutions from the ‘people first’ approach. Another personality trait is optimism (2), where an innovator knows that there is a better solution than the existing alternative without regard of the current constraints. This trait relates to experimentation (3) where the design thinker poses questions and explores constraints in creative ways to discover new directions; you know nothing about your ideas until you learn while prototyping (Brown, Innovation through Design Thinking, 2006).
The final two personality traits are defined as integrative thinking (4) where the innovator is capable of creating novel solutions to contradictory aspects of a problem and finally, collaboration (5), where not only the design thinkers work alongside other disciplines, but have experience in more than one. (Brown, Design Thiking, 2008)
Dyer et al., identify five ‘discovery skills’ of innovators that can be learned and engage both sides of the brain to create new ideas. These five skills are central to the thinking of any innovator and are described as following: Questioning (1) is a tool that helps break the status quo and challenge assumptions, the most effective questions relate on ‘Why?’, ‘Why not?’, ‘What if?’ and my personal favorite, ‘How can we…?’ whenever an answer for any given question is a “no” or “we can’t”. The second skill is observing (2), this consists in carefully, intentionally and consistently look out for small behavioral details in order to gain new insights about new ways of doing things. For example someone had to come up with the idea of putting wheels in suitcases and bags by noticing the effort it required to move them through a lengthy airport.
Creating prototypes and launching pilots are other activities that are associated with innovators, this skilled is called experimenting (3). It is essential because it allows the innovator to learn quickly and ideally cheap. A fourth skill is networking (4), where meeting with different kinds of ideas and perspective enables a radically different perspective. The last skill is the ‘glue’ that connects seemingly unrelated questions, problems or ideas from different fields, as stated by Steve Jobs “Creativity is connecting things”. This skilled is called associating (5). (Dyer, Gregersen, & Christensen, 2009)
After reviewing different perspectives of the traits and skills of an innovator, Drucker suggests on how a knowledge worker can succeed in the knowledge economy. The first point that he proposes is to know your strengths and put these strengths where they can produce results. A knowledge worker should focus on the skills that he is good at and make them extraordinary rather than taking skills that are non-existing and taking them to a modest level: “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence” (Drucker, 1999).
Drucker suggests that is highly valuable to know how does the knowledge worker perform. This involves their personality, doing what they are good at and working in the ways that they best perform; “Do not try to change yourself -you are unlikely to succeed. Work to improve the way you perform” (Drucker, 1999).
All of the perspectives described above have the same objective; fulfill a mission as an innovator through the different skills, attitudes and personality proposed in the literature. The relationship of these concepts can be seen below.
Figure 1. Relationship of the literature
This figure aims to represent how the different authors’ represent the thinking of an innovator. Their suggestions are very similar even though they utilize different terminology due to their research and experience. I find that the skills proposed by Dyer et al. have their equivalents in the design thinking perspective by Brown, and that all of these belong to the mindfulness attitude that Langer argues.
As a result of their similarity, it is difficult to present solid arguments against this framework of thinking. These authors can summarize in five aspects what is needed in the mind of an innovator to generate insights and achieve sustainable economic-growth. On the other hand, there is the question of how to achieve that kind of mind-set. Dyer et al. state that one third of the capacity comes from a genetic source and that the remaining two thirds comes from learning, nonetheless, Drucker declares that any person is very unlikely to succeed in changing themselves. These are contrasting and very interesting ideas; If a person is not born with any of these five skills/personality traits, is he unlikely to be a successful innovator?
Another example could be the case of a person that has ‘first-rate performance’ in one the skills, for example experimenting. Drucker suggests that he should focus on improving his performance to a level of excellence and do not even try to develop the other four; Is being excellent at one specific skill is enough to be a successful innovator?
I would argue that an innovator is an exceptional type of persona, and that is highly related to the self-attitude and self-willingness to see opportunities where others do not even bother to look. I could assume that the research of Drucker refer to knowledge workers who cannot afford to take risks and/or are uncomfortable with uncertainty. Where he states that anyone is unlikely to succeed at changing him or herself, I would argue, isn’t innovation unlikely to succeed at the first try? Why can’t we innovate in ourselves?
Brown, T. (2008, June). Design Thiking. Harvard Business Review , 84-92.
Brown, T. (2006). Innovation through Design Thinking.
Charan, R., & Lafley, A. (2008). The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation. Crown Business.
Davenport, T. H. (1995, November). The Fad That Forgot People. Fast Company , 70.
Drucker, P. F. (1999, March/April). Managing Oneself. Harvard Business Review , 64-77.
Dyer, J. H., Gregersen, H. B., & Christensen, C. M. (2009, December). The Innovator’s DNA. Harvard Business Review , 59-67.
Langler. (2008). How Mindfulness can improve your work and your life. Rottman Magazine (Winter), 83-86.
Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuos Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business. Crown Publishing Group.