Qualities of Great Innovators
We all seem to know what an innovator is. But what’s been harder to define for thousands of years is how innovators actually come up with their ideas.
In ancient times, it was believed that creativity was not a human attribute at all but solely a divine one. The Sumerians, who are credited with a large number of technological and social innovations at the very beginning of human history, believed that the many creative achievements of their civilization were not due to their own efforts but rather were gifts from the gods. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, human beings were likewise not considered to be “creative.” They were makers and users of things that God had created in the first place.
Everything started to change with the European Renaissance of the 14th to the 17th centuries, and in particular with the birth of humanism. That’s when the belief began to spread that great creative or scientific accomplishments were the direct result of a person’s owns education and abilities rather than the work of some external divine entity. Suddenly, it was the human being that was the genius. And in this exciting new age, as rationalism slowly eroded the power of mysticism, people were encouraged to tap into their own intellectual and creative capacities in unprecedented ways. Thus, the Renaissance ushered in an era of unleashed human potential, producing a slew of technological, artistic and cultural achievements.
What we primarily want to understand is the innovative thinking patterns and dispositions that became so prevalent in the Renaissance period
Innovators know how to leverage resources
Innovators see themselves, and the world around them, as a collection of skills and assets that can be recombined or stretched into new opportunities.
Filippo Brunelleschi, for example, who is regarded as one of the seminal figures of the entire period, started out as a master goldsmith. But he also studied literature and mathematics and had a strong artistic leaning. Brunelleschi was able to masterfully leverage his portfolio of skills beyond metalworking into sculpture, clock-making, architecture, archeology, engineering and even ship design — in many cases achieving what had literally never been done before.
In 1410 Brunelleschi succeeded in inventing the world’s first portable clock. By borrowing and repurposing technologies from different fields, Brunelleschi was able to make a clock that was not only much smaller and lighter but, more importantly, portable for the very first time.
However, Brunelleschi is best remembered not for his contribution to clock-making but for his achievements in architecture. His major work was the huge dome of Florence Cathedral (known as the Duomo), which is considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments since antiquity. Nobody had ever built a self-supporting dome before, and none of his contemporary architects had any idea how to do it. Brunelleschi had to rewrite all the architectural rules, inventing his own mathematical, structural and building solutions at every step of the project.
He was constantly trying to expand his portfolio of skills and assets and to redeploy them in new ways or new contexts. He proved himself a genius at leveraging his own resources — and those he discovered around him — to transition into different kinds of opportunities.
This attitude, the awareness of our limitless capacity for developing, stretching and synthesizing resources, is one of the recurrent thinking patterns we find when we study the mind of the innovator
Innovators understand the needs of the people
The pattern of thinking that is characteristic of Innovators is their seemingly insatiable curiosity for the world around them and their unshakeable belief that they could make the world an increasingly better place.
No figure from the period epitomizes this more than Leonardo da Vinci. Helen Gardner, in her book Art through the Ages, writes of da Vinci’s “unquenchable curiosity,” and we see this reflected in the 13,000 pages of his famous journals, in which he made a daily record — in notes, drawings and scientific diagrams — of his observations and studies. These notebooks cover a wide range of interests and phenomena, from human anatomy and facial expressions to animals, birds, plants, rocks, water, chemistry, optics, painting, astronomy, architecture and engineering.
Da Vinci’s acute observations led him to think about and try to solve problems that hadn’t been seriously considered before. Nobody, for example, was asking for a parachute, a car, a submarine, a hang glider, a diving suit, a helicopter, a calculator, or floating shoes and stocks for walking on water, but Leonardo da Vinci invented, or at least conceptualized, these things.
Da Vinci was able to spot unmet needs and innovation opportunities because he was vastly more observant and more engaged with his environment than others. He was focusing his attention on issues and frustrations that most people simply ignored.
Innovators figured out how to connect what was possible with what was needed. This, then, is the perspective or thinking pattern of the innovator — the desire to develop deep insights into all kinds of phenomena and to use new knowledge to solve problems, address needs and improve quality of life in completely novel ways
Innovators know how to challenge orthodoxies
Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when we think about Renaissance innovators is their contrarian spirit. It was a time when people began to ask skeptical questions that had never been asked before and to challenge deeply entrenched beliefs that had long been taken for granted. For example: Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler asked,“What if the Earth is not the center of the Universe? What if it revolves around the Sun along with the other planets?”
Machiavelli asked, “What if politics has nothing to do with theology or morality? What if it’s simply about using all means — fair and foul — to retain power?” Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti asked, “Why can’t a painting be less like wall decoration and more like a window into the natural world? What if we used mathematical and optical principles to imitate objects so accurately that they look entirely real?”
Amerigo Vespucci asked, “What if the Earth has a much larger circumference than we learned from Ptolemy’s cartography? What if these lands Columbus has newly discovered are not the Indies at all but in fact another whole continent — a New World?”
Almost by definition, these Renaissance revolutionaries were nonconformists who were willing to contest previously held truths — beliefs and assumptions that had been accepted as absolute gospel for perhaps a thousand years or more — and to reinvent their worldview completely from scratch. Many of them were branded as heretics or lunatics. Yet their propensity to break the chains of precedent and to challenge conventional thinking became the basis for a whole string of breakthrough discoveries and new philosophies that literally changed our world.
This capacity to challenge orthodoxies and to propose perhaps wildly antithetical alternatives is one of the fundamental driving forces for innovation
Innovators see the future in the present
Innovators understand change. They seem to have a knack for recognizing and harnessing the potential of things that are already changing, where others do not. They are sensitive and alert to the kinds of trends that — if scaled up — could profoundly impact the future or that could enable them to drive significant industry change.
Innovators are not just better at picking up the signals. They are better at reading them. Their accurate powers of observation are matched by exceptional powers of reflection. They have a deep curiosity that makes them wonder where some nascent development might eventually lead, how it could potentially alter the current rules of competition, what kind of new value it might create for customers or what would possibly happen if this trend intersected with others.
Most importantly, they act on this vision before others do, usually because their rivals are still denying or discounting the importance of these change factors.
If we are going to learn to ride the waves of change, we first need to develop the ability to spot and recognize emerging patterns that can reveal where the world — and our business — might be or should be going in the future. We need to immerse ourselves in what is happening right now by making sure we stay closely connected with our customers, society and the rest of the world, and by keeping our eyes and ears open at all times.
That means regularly engaging in activities that awaken your curiosity by exposing yourself to new trends, impressions and perspectives. For example, conversing with people from different industries, demographic groups, geographies and levels of the organization. Or visiting new and out of-the-ordinary places; eating in new restaurants; following new fashions in clothing, music, sport, movies and theater; getting a close-up view of new technologies; and spending more time hanging out with teenagers and other people who seem to have their finger on the pulse of change.
Innovators repurpose, redeploy and recombine
Every company utilizes a specific set of resources (e.g., competencies and assets) to turn some form of input (e.g., raw materials, semifinished goods, information, ideas) into some form of output (e.g., a product or service) of value to others. Many of those resources are embedded in an organization’s own business model. Others are possessed by external companies that work with the firm at various points in the value chain as part of a larger business ecosystem.
For most of the industrial era, companies have predominantly asked themselves how to use the resources available to them more efficiently — in other words, how do we produce basically the same kinds of goods and services only faster, better and cheaper? But in today’s value-based economy, companies increasingly need to ask themselves how to use the resources available to them more innovatively — “How do we leverage existing skills and assets in different ways, different contexts or different combinations, in order to create new opportunities for value creation and growth?”
Nobody on earth knows how to produce and distribute carbonated soft drinks more efficiently than Coke. But the fact of the matter is that soda sales in the United States have been declining for the past 10 years (and are now falling globally), as people in general become more concerned about health, wellness and obesity issues.
So the focus at Coca-Cola is not on how to produce greater quantities of soda at lower cost but on how to use all available resources to offer customers healthier or trendier alternatives, such as fruit juices, water and energy drinks, not to forget Coke’s new “healthier” soda, Coca-Cola Life.
If a company is not capable of doing this — of using resources not just efficiently (for optimized production) but also innovatively (for new value creation) — it runs the risk of one day becoming incredibly efficient at producing what customers no longer want. Nokia and Kodak are sad examples of this phenomenon.
Business history teaches us that innovators often come to their breakthroughs by decoupling, remixing and stretching existing resources. They view a company not as a set of business units but as a portfolio of distinct, standalone skills and assets that can potentially be repurposed, redeployed or recombined in different ways to create new opportunities for value creation. In fact, they look at the whole world as a rich reservoir of resources that may be leveraged to make innovation happen.
Over the last few decades, the Walt Disney Company has continued to leverage its formidable skills and assets to open up new avenues of value creation. For example, the blockbuster movie series Pirates of the Caribbean had its genesis as a theme-park attraction at Disneyland back in 1967. This asset was repurposed as a feature film in 2003 and went on to become a major franchise, encompassing several more movies as well as novels, video games, media publications and additional theme-park attractions. The films alone have grossed well over $3.7 billion worldwide.
Where would Sir Richard Branson and Virgin be today if he had decided not to diversify but rather to focus his efforts solely on running the world's best record stores? His advice to other companies? “You shouldn't be afraid to diversify if you are in a position to do so, especially because nothing ever stays exactly the same. ... Whenever Virgin has money I always renew my search for new opportunities.”
Innovators know how to Innovate from the customer
More and more companies are learning to engage their customers in the innovation process. However, innovating from the customer doesn’t just mean “listening to the voice of the customer.” Why not? In an interview with BusinessWeek in May 1998, Steve Jobs remarked, “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
Nobody, for example, told Apple they wanted a translucent desktop computer, a cool MP3 player, an online music store, a revolutionary smartphone, an App Store or a tablet computer, but once Steve Jobs showed us these amazing things we realized we definitely wanted them — and needed them.
So the challenge is to try to understand the latent needs, wants and frustrations that customers can’t always articulate. The way entrepreneurs and companies get to these answers is not simply by asking customers what they want or by reading a market research report, but by trying to look at the world — and at their own brands, products and services — through the customer’s eyes (the fourth lens of innovation). They immerse themselves in the customers’ environment and observe how they behave and what they experience.
Whether through direct observation of the customer in his or her natural setting (perhaps making photo or video diaries), or mapping the customer experience at every stage of the demand chain, or trying to viscerally share that experience by using your company’s products and services yourself, the goal is to make the customer’s needs, problems, frustrations and feelings your own. This is how you generate the kind of deep customer insights that may trigger big new innovation opportunities. Your next step will be to start thinking creatively about how to address these issues before the competition does.
For most of the last century, corporate innovation was driven primarily from the technology side rather than the customer side. That is to say, in most large organizations it tended to start with technical R&D and engineering rather than with deep insights into customer needs.
But in today’s value-based economy, where global competition and overcapacity have given the consumer more choices and more power than ever before, a large number of companies from all over the world are now competing for the same customer’s money. Success has therefore come to depend on an organization’s ability to bring exciting and compelling new benefits to customers — or address their unmet needs — before the competition.
In many cases, it’s still the technology that comes first and the consumer application second, which can nevertheless work out just fine. But increasingly companies are starting from the other end, by first identifying an important customer need and then working backward to find a technical solution. The key point here is that both sides of the equation are vital, so the real challenge for organizations is how to get better at bringing the two together