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Great Innovator Skills

Innovation is simple and complex. It’s simple because ultimately, innovation is about making good on opportunities and solving problems.  Organizations that do this well are able to achieve success (ie: greater relevance and revenue, etc.).  Yet innovation in the enterprise is complex because there are many things to consider, different agendas, challenges with effecting change and managing risk, etc. –  associated with realizing business potential and evolving the organization that requires dealing with unknowns, developing new capabilities, changing markets, rising User expectations, expanding comfort zones, addressing threats to the business / industry, managing technological and business model change, etc.

To innovate for impact to make good on opportunities or solve tough problems, requires leadership vision and commitment, top talent as well as an enormous amount of time, effort and resources with skills that include –

1. Curiosity  &  Exploration

Leonardo da Vinci was intensely curious and innovative with incredible powers of observation and superior capabilities to render his understanding of things (ie: an explanation, drawing, model, invention, etc.). Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin and others also had these qualities.  Innovation rewards those who can visualize the future – and are not afraid to try various combinations and theories to solve a problem – by synthesizing insights across domains. For example, when Dharmendra Modha was developing neuromorphic computing, he not only had to be an expert at chip design, but also have a strong knowledge of neuroscience and network theory.  Great innovators realize ideas become useful when applied to a specific problem. While some come quickly, there are cases where years are invested in working on something before  finding a solution or the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s this kind of tenacity, combined with the willingness to probe and explore that makes the difference – and is a major contributor to meaningfully improving business outcomes from innovation.

2. Effective  Networking

Great innovators tend to be nice people and interested in sharing their insights. Because of this, networks have a major effect on innovation – with the more you share with others, typically other people share more with you.  This is important since the more information you have, the more aware you are of the different options available and greater likelihood of determining what’s needed to solve an important problem or create something meaningfully new. Great innovators are knowledge brokers, not knowledge hoarders.  Contrary to popular myth, you don’t find many great innovators working alone in some lab, but rather in a network or ecosystem – where information and insights flow.  This is important to facilitate seeing the dots and connecting the dots.

3. Comfort  With  Ambiguity  &  Uncertainty

To run a successful enterprise, you have to make investments, attract talent, form partnerships, etc. You also have to set expectations as well as make good on commitments and opportunities to improve the probability of achieving objectives, etc. That takes a certain amount of predictability and so it shouldn’t be surprising that managers invest a lot of time and effort into planning effectively and follow through (operational execution, monitoring and management).  However, innovation isn’t like operations. Creating something new and useful requires people overcome uncertainties and function with unknowns – where things frequently don’t work well or go according to plan !  Further, the more disruptive the new initiative or idea, the more challenging it is to get buy-in since people struggle with context, assessing need or potential, organizational change, probability of success, etc.  This is especially the case with a significant innovation – ie: electricity, the automobile, the computer, etc. that took decades to make impact. This is because supporting technologies and ecosystems need to be developed, lifestyles and business practices need to shift and costs need to be more reasonable – before potential can be realized. This  typically takes a lot of time, effort and money. In the interim, since few people know how things will pan out, to innovate for impact, there is a need to get comfortable with some ambiguity and uncertainty – and rely on incremental or sustainable (H1 or H2) innovation to carry the organization until results from disruptive (H3) innovation occur.

4.  Strong Communications and Rigor

In the 1850’s, Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor at the obstetric ward of Vienna General Hospital. Appalled by the number of deaths in the ward, he instituted a strict regime of hand washing and virtually eliminated the childbed fever that was endemic at the time. Unfortunately, instead of being recognized for his accomplishment, he was castigated and considered a quack because hand washing conflicted with the prevailing miasma theory that “bad airs”, not bacteria, caused disease !  Hand washing simply didn’t make any sense to the establishment !  Yet as Sherwin Nuland explains in The Doctor’s Plague, had Semmelweis validated his work it would have fast tracked people appreciating the impressive results. So while results alone should warrant attention and trigger the pursuit of knowledge to explain things, when not done, change frequently doesn’t happen. And unfortunately, in this case when hand washing wasn’t adapted as a standard practice until many years later, many millions died !  Having a breakthrough idea is one thing, but you also have to see it through by expanding knowledge, updating the thinking, knowing the facts, addressing concerns, being an effective communicator, etc.

For Innovators,  having these attributes is very important to meaningfully improving business outcomes from innovation – on a sustainable basis.



Nov 20, 2019         –      CAIL  /  Greg Satell  –  Innovation Commentary