10 Ways to Recognize an Innovator

October 19th, 2009

pioneerCan you recognize an innovator when you meet one?  The old adage, you can tell a pioneer because they are the ones with the arrows in their backs, may be true but doesn’t help to identify innovators.

I used to think we could convert everyone to be an innovator or create a culture in which everyone could innovate.  I have changed my view after many years as a road warrior consultant and innovation junkie.  Proselytizing doesn’t work.  People are either wired as innovators or they aren’t.  The trick isn’t to create more innovators it is to identify them, connect them together in purposeful ways, and give them the freedom to innovate.  A leader’s job is to create an environment where innovators can thrive.

Not everyone can or needs to be an innovator.  I hear many executives express a desire to create a culture where all of their employees can innovate.  I think that is the wrong objective.  It is not important or even possible to have everyone in an organization innovate.  In fact most of the people in an organization should not be focused on innovation, they should be focused on delivering results within the current business model.  These are the motivated and valued individuals committed to making quarterly numbers and annual business objectives. There is nothing wrong with that and these individuals must be highly valued in any organization.  They get stuff done.  They should not be made to feel like second-class citizens just because they are not innovators. Without them there would be no resources available to invest in innovation. The majority of individuals in an organization should be encouraged to be creative in doing their work as efficiently as they can but you don’t want them distracted by early stage ideas to improve or change the business model.

Some part of your organization and allocated resources must be focused on innovation.  Not just R&D for new products and services but R&D to develop new capabilities and new business models.   Survival is dependent on constantly looking for ways to deliver more value to customers.  Every organization should have a discreet innovation effort sponsored and resourced by senior leadership.  Without this commitment all innovation efforts will migrate toward incremental improvements to the current business model.  Those are important but should not crowd out potential game changing growth opportunities even ones that might disrupt the current business model.

If the game is to identify and connect the innovators, how do you identify them and ensure that they have the resources and freedom to innovate?  I like hanging around innovators and have been honing my targeting and selection process over many years.  Here are 10 behavioral characteristics I use to recognize an innovator.

1. Innovators always think there is a better way.

2. Innovators know that without passion there can be no innovation.

3. Innovators embrace change to a fault.

4. Innovators have a strong point of view but know that they are missing something.

5. Innovators know that innovation is a team sport.

6. Innovators embrace constraints as opportunities.

7. Innovators celebrate their vulnerability.

8. Innovators openly share their ideas and passions expecting to be challenged.

9. Innovators know that the best ideas are in the gray areas between silos.

10. Innovators know that a good story can change the world.

Identifying innovators and connecting them together in purposeful ways is the secret sauce for business model and systems level change.  It is how we are going to make progress on the big social challenges of our time including, education, health care, and energy.  Change begins with the ability to recognize an innovator when you meet one.

15 Responses to “10 Ways to Recognize an Innovator”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Saul Kaplan, Charlie Harding. Charlie Harding said: RT @skap5: 10 Ways to Recognize an Innovator. New post: http://cli.gs/0QqEvd […]

  2. Rotkapchen says:

    Let me not detract from a phenomenal post by adding some challenges I’ve added to my own thinking of late.

    1. We need to differentiate between ‘innovators’ and ‘innovative cultures’

    2. Given your 4 and 5 (which are critical) it makes one wonder if there’s such a thing as an ‘innovator’.

    3. Change. I’m beginning to discover that it’s not a useful verb (action) but ok as a reflective noun (observation after the fact). To be successful the action word has to be “help”. If what is intended is not perceived or purported from the perspective of some mutual ‘help’, it doesn’t have a chance of survival. If the intent doesn’t help ‘me’ or I’m not seeing how/why I might help ‘you’, there’s nothing to get my attention or impact my personal economics model to engage my investment of time.

  3. artmadillo says:

    I’ve just started a master in Design Innovation.
    I’m still a wee bit lost, can it be taught? I’ll take your 10 principles as a beginning, and give you my feedback next year.

  4. Ahmad Nazir says:

    I innovate my own cup of coffee, is that count? Hihi, joking. Nice one! I love to innovate!

  5. Dee Gardner says:

    This is a great article. When I was young I believed as you did that people could be taught to do anything. After 20 years of interacting. I feel exactly like you do. Some people are just wired to do certain things. I have to find what people are good at and foster that behavior. If I can get them to use their own supper power to make things happen amazing things will happen.

  6. Ratio says:

    What a load of crap. Sounds like someone with a superiority complex that thinks he knows some sort of Secret Sauce that others and their puny brains just can’t handle.

    I’ve worked in both normal development teams, and in teams dedicated to Innovation within a company, what have I seen? Yes anyone can be taught to innovate, it is a way to think and a point of view more than anything else. Hmm if only there were some example of the real world that taught that sort of thing. Oh wait, I know colleges and universities!

    Get off your high horse, and got get some work done.

  7. Good article and addressing an important point for business.

    The innovator can be a real resource and asset to the company, but it takes a real leader to manage that asset. By definition and the traits outlined above, an innovator is a rebel challenging the status quo. Organizational change is a threat to established interests in the organization.

    Point 5. A team sport is right on. The innovator needs the support of the leader, or at least someone within the organization, who will sponsor the innovator’s idea.

    Rotkapchen is correct to point out the difference between the “innovator” and “innovative cultures”. A design firm is founded on the principle of innovation and finding innovative solutions to client problems. It requires an innovative culture to be successful. On the other hand, a contract manufacturer is founded on the principle of dependability and reliability to produce what it contracts to produce for the client. It requires a culture of quality control (6 sigma)for its success.

    Good article and one worthy of comment.

  8. This is a lovely list, because it suggests that I’m an innovator, and of course I like being labeled that way.

    But it’s also dismaying because many middle school teachers are expected NOT to be this way, and it makes it difficult to bring innovation into the classrooms where kids are learning how to live in the coming future.

  9. June Holley says:

    Like rotkapchen, I’m thinking less about individual innovators these days, and more about environments and dynamics that support innovation. Most innovation flows out of collaboration and support systems. Maybe we need to start looking at this more closely: how can we provide incentives and support for more and more effective collaborative innovation: great hangout places (FTF and web) that encourage quick and seamless movement from a brainstorming space to a collaborative project space; skill-building in joint design and deep reflection that lead to breakthroughs; communication systems that feed insights and breakthroughs (however small) back to larger networks so they become viral.

  10. […] Innovators have certain characteristics that equip them to find better ways of doing things, Saul Kaplan from Business Innovation Factory wrote up a brilliant post on the 10 ways to recognize and innovator: […]

  11. Laurie says:

    Unfortunately in some of our more repressive work environments I think like the pioneers, our innovators are easily recognized.In times of constraint it’s ironic that though it is our innovators who can lead the way they often tend to make the boss nervous.

  12. […] and I don’t always agree on everything, but his list of ten things that identify an innovator reads like a list of qualities administrators try to avoid when hiring a middle school teacher.  […]

  13. […] the freedom to work. But how do you identify them?  Here are ten points Kaplan uses, from his blog It’s Saul Connected: 1. Innovators always think there is a better […]

  14. Bruce Tan says:

    Greet post this will really help me!

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