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4 Skills That All Great Innovators Share

2017 December 13
by Greg Satell

I spent the majority of my adult life managing organizations and I always felt enormous pressure to innovate, but whenever I went looking for guidance, what I found was a confused jumble. Disruptive innovation, design thinking, open innovation, lean launchpads and on and on. Unlike marketing or finance, there wasn’t any one clear framework.

So I spent nearly a decade on the research that led to my book Mapping Innovation and what I found is that innovation is at once more simple and more complex than most people give it credit for. It’s more simple because ultimately, innovation is about solving problems and organizations that can identify new problems can usually innovate successfully.

Yet it is also more complex because there are so many problems and so few solutions. To solve a really tough problem, you have to look far and wide to find the right combination of ideas. That takes an enormous amount of dedication and skill. However, there’s no evidence that these talents are innate. You can learn the skills you need to up your innovation game.

1. Applied Curiosity

In Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci the veteran author marvels at the great master’s incredible powers of observation and his restless urge to apply them to seemingly every subject that crossed his path. He also continually notes that these qualities reminded him of others he had written about, such as Steve Jobs, Einstein and Ben Franklin.

I found much the same in my research. Innovation rewards combination. To come up with something truly new, you need to synthesize 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 to learn about neuroscience and network theory.

Still, great innovators are more than just dreamers. The random ideas they come across only become useful when applied to a specific problem. Often, they spend years or even decades working on something before they hit on that one missing piece to the puzzle. So it is that kind of tenacity, combined with the eagerness to probe new spaces that makes the difference.

That’s why innovation needs exploration. Not all who wander are lost, but you have to wander with purpose.

2. Effective Networking

Another thing noticed in my research is that almost all of the great innovators I talked to were incredibly nice, generous people who were eager to share their insights. Far from the mercurial, egotistical stereotype, they were not only gracious to me, but also took pains to assign less credit to themselves and more to others they worked with.

I thought this might be a case of selection bias, because it was possible that by merely agreeing to speak with me they had to be somewhat genial. Maybe the nasty ones just never gave me any time? So I researched the matter further and found that there is research going back decades, encompassing  broadway plays, the design firm IDEO, currency traders and engineers at Bell Labs that show social networks have a major effect on innovation.

As it turns out, generosity can be a competitive advantage because the more you share, the more people share with you. The more information you come across, the more likely you are to find that small little tidbit that can help you solve an important problem. Great innovators are knowledge brokers, not knowledge hoarders.

Contrary to popular myth, you don’t find many great innovators working alone in some hidden lab, but rather at the center of networks, where information and insights are most likely to flow.

3. Comfort With Confusion

To run a successful enterprise, you have to make investments, hire staff and form partnerships. You also have to set expectations and keep promises. 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.

However, innovation isn’t like operations. Creating something new and useful requires us to work in the realm of the unknown, where things don’t work very well and things never go quite according to plan. The more radical and disruptive a new idea is, the less it makes sense in the current context.

Take a look at any significant innovation, whether it is electricity, the automobile, the computer or anything else and it took decades for it to make an impact. Supporting technologies need to be developed, lifestyles and business practices need to shift and costs need to come down before its potential can be realized. That takes time.

In the interim, nobody really knows where it’s all going. So to innovate effectively, you need to get comfortable with a certain amount of uncertainty and confusion.

4. 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. Alas, things did not go well from there.

Instead of being lauded for his accomplishment, he was castigated and considered a quack. Part of the problem was that Semmelweis’s ideas about hand washing conflicted with the prevailing miasma theory of the day. It was widely thought at the time that “bad airs”, not bacteria, caused disease. So hand washing simply didn’t make any sense to the medical profession at the time.

Yet as Sherwin Nuland explains in The Doctor’s Plague, there’s more to the story than that. Semmelweis, didn’t validate his work as well as he should have. He thought that his initial results should have been convincing enough. So he didn’t take care in formatting his publications clearly or even collecting data in a manner that would gain his ideas greater acceptance. Untold millions died because of it.

Having a breakthrough idea is one thing, but you also have to see it through, by checking your facts, answering questions and alleviating concerns. That’s what makes great innovators different from the one-hit-wonders. They’re not prima donnas or glory seekers, but see themselves as problem solvers working to figure things out.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

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