What makes someone an innovator? Is it merely a creative individual with lots of ideas? Perhaps. Many will tell you, however, that creativity is only a part of the puzzle and ideas are innovative only if they lead to a practical application. Innovation, after all, is not just creatively thinking things up; it is acting on those ideas and creating something useful from them. Is an innovator someone who breaks down barriers, resists authority, and walks his or her own path? R&D rebels, mad scientists, skunk works, and R&D undergrounds all emerge because at some point this type of innovator is necessary. But such work and such people are often the exception not the rule. So what is it, what makes someone an innovator?
During the various 2012 meetings of the Industrial Research Institute (IRI), we asked member participants what trait they looked for when they sought to hire a new innovator. Surprisingly, no one said creativity. No one said rule-breaker (although “boundary spanner” did come up). The most common answers expressed a similar sentiment: they sought out those who were passionate, curious and respectful of the ambiguity needed to keep an open mind when confronted with a challenge. The net results of these informal surveys were quite interesting and this list is a brief overview.
1) Passionate Curiosity
The most commonly expressed characteristic IRI members said they looked for was something best described as the combination of two other traits: passion and curiosity; a driven desire to explore un-thought of solutions to new and old challenges. People who are passionately curious are those who explore the boundaries of what their company already knows and does and then looks for ways to make improvements. When asked if this was creativity by another name several quickly put their hands up defensively as if to say “whoa whoa, slow down” and then made sure that they spoke very carefully to delineate creativity from the passionate curiosity they meant. This was an important distinction to make for many. Some even stated clearly that creativity was indeed an element of this, but that it was only a part. What was more important was the willingness, or passion, to pursue something new, start to finish—even if it went nowhere—for the sake of learning about existing possibilities. Innovation, they said, is exploration + evaluation + execution. It is not just exploration, which for many was symbolic of creativity. To go those extra two steps needed to innovate requires passion and curiosity.
2) Respect for Ambiguity
New discoveries often do not present their commercial application during the discovery and invention phases of innovation. R&D practitioners may uncover a new film technology, or a new drug that blocks certain chemical receptors, or even a new polymer which is more sustainable and durable, but how those products can be applied commercially is often not clear to its inventors. So a healthy respect for the ambiguity involved in developing and building a new product with no clear application and then maintaining management’s support for such a project is part of the job description for good innovators. Innovators are part scientist, part salesman, part chainsaw juggler.
3) Cross-Functional Experience
Today’s innovation landscape is shifting so quickly that R&D managers are beginning to seek out those people with experience in more than just R&D. They want scientists who have also worked in the field doing evaluations, worked in marketing as testers, worked in finance as budget planners, or worked in design where back-end refinements of new products get made. Being a well-rounded corporate R&D practitioner is becoming more important to those seeking innovators. The speed-to-market pressures of today’s era are driving this need. The lab practitioners no longer want to create something new only to have another department shoot them down after they have already put in some of the work; now they want someone who can tell them up front, “they won’t go for this and here’s why, but maybe they will if we try this…” And that recommendation will come from a place of first-hand experience, not just guess-work. This is not to suggest that these departments are not communicating, but that such a conversation should take place within a department to prevent it from being discussed and wasting time in the later cross-departmental meetings. This demands that innovators be well-rounded professionally.
4) Team Player
Although it did not come up in our survey answers as much as we expected, the ability to play well with others did make an appearance or two in our responses. This is and has been a truism in business and industry for decades. Industry experts recognize that the key to success in almost any field is the ability to work alongside and communicate effectively with other people. Don’t sleep through your classes on interpersonal communication, learn how to speak and write well and how to apply those talents to group work and you will go far.
5) Strong Work Ethic
Another no-brainer that we expected from our informal survey was solid work ethic. Interestingly enough, however, it was often phrased as “dogged persistence” more than “work ethic,” hinting at the current of resistance R&D practitioners confront daily. Every facet of the innovator’s job consists of working within constraints. These range from simple resource and budget constraints to personnel/knowledge constraints to even greater challenges like cultural constraints. The fear of losing one’s job over wasted resources (in whatever shape or form they take) is always looming over the head of an R&D practitioner, especially as global speed-to-market demands intensify. So, despite all of this, the innovator, in the eyes of other R&D practitioners and innovators hiring them, is someone who can stand up to those constraints and continue a project against all odds and come out with something to share with the rest of his organization or department, and this returns us full-circle to the trait that ranked number one: passionate curiosity—the trait required to possess a strong work ethic.