An exploration of five traits that differentiate successful innovators
By Erin Weber
January 2010 seems like a great time to set some professional goals, so when I finally got the chance to sit down with the December issue of Harvard Business Review, one article in particular grabbed my attention: The Innovator’s DNA.
The authors spent six years surveying more than 3,000 executives and studying the habits of 25 entrepreneurs who had demonstrated innovative insight. The goal of the study was to recognize traits that differentiated innovators from the general pool of leaders. Five habits emerged as particularly key to the discovery of innovative insights. Fortunately, the authors went a step further and made suggestions as to exercises people can use to hone their ability to use these “discovery skills.” As you will see below, the five traits are the basis for my 2010 professional resolutions. Maybe they will inspire you as well…
Associating: the ability to make connections between questions, ideas and problems that others assume to be unrelated. The authors argue that more diverse experiences increase the connections within our brain and facilitate the recognition of unlikely associations.
I resolve to expose myself to a new technology, industry, place or culture at least once each week.
Questioning: the habit of questioning everyday assumptions. Innovators tend to ask “Why?”, “Why not?” and “What if?” on a daily basis.
I resolve to write down 3 questions each day that challenge the status quo, starting with today:
1. Why aren’t apartment buildings heated more on the bottom floors and less on the top floors to account for the natural rising of hot air?
2. What if my books could save and display different highlights for both me and my fiancée?
3. Why do people naturally gravitate towards things that are soft and smooth? (Cashmere, the soft interior lining of UGG boots, baby’s skin)
I resolve to make weekly journal entries regarding my observations of common situations. I’ll start with today’s observation that the size of discarded Christmas trees on the streets of New York are noticeably proportional to the income level of any given neighborhood.
Experimenting: actively testing new ideas through prototyping and creating pilots.
As a designer, this habit is relatively ingrained in my design process. I sketch almost everything before launching Adobe. I buy paper samples to mock up invitations and have been known to make rough models out of Styrofoam to solve installation challenges on the fly. For that reason: I resolve to document my prototyping process and solicit more external feedback based on the rough concepts.
Networking: the tendency to engage people from different fields and backgrounds. Innovators make a point to meet people with different perspectives and expertise in order to expand their own knowledge base and enable interdisciplinary solutions.
I resolve to reach out to one new contact each month, openly sharing my ideas and listening to theirs. I will start with an interview through The Middle Project, a group dedicated to “training ethical leaders.”
Although I gathered a great deal of value from this article, I was simultaneously disconcerted by the realization that out of a 22-person list titled: “sample of innovative entrepreneurs from our study”, only ONE was a woman: Diane Green of VMWare. I do not pretend to deny the continuing existence of a dramatic difference in the number of male executives to female executives; however my psychology degree leads me to question whether the results were skewed by such a low representation of women. My hypothesis is that the five aforementioned traits are consistent across gender; however, men and women differ in their natural inclination towards the various skills. My follow up “research” will be admittedly less scientific, as I dive into a study of one, resolving to personally focus on improving each of these skills over the next year.
Please leave a note to let me know how your personal “research” goes.
Follow Erin’s progress at http://resolvingtoinnovate.wordpress.com