Thomas Edison, possibly America’s Greatest Inventor, was once described as having “an inexhaustible resource and fertility of ideas when it came to practical solution finding. He could juggle multiple projects at the same time and “turn a problem around” from every angle to see all the possibilities, generate ideas, make creative connections, and discern patterns. At the height of his exploration into electrical power, for example, he worked on forty projects simultaneously. Edison credited this remarkable ability to what he called his “mental kaleidoscope.”
Kaleidoscopic thinking is what differentiates idea generators from successful innovators. Once management bets its future on innovation, creating an innovation-driven culture is a must. This starts with identifying who the people are capable of kaleidoscopic thinking. We have identified nine personality traits that shape the innovative mind-set.
Curiosity is an important ingredient of innovation. Innovators are forward thinking and open to new ideas. The highly curious individual imagines and pursues possibilities. They do not limit themselves to probabilities. Curious people don’t take information at face value. They probe. They tinker. They don’t ask “what to do” but “what if.” They want to know “how” something works and “why.” Too many managers think they are innovating when they initiate and approve trivial projects which turn out to be merely superficial ideas. That is like throwing seeds on stony ground; they might sprout but they do not take root and grow into anything useful. Successful innovators ask lots of questions which stimulates even more questions.
Risk-taking and critical thinking. A curious, imaginative mind-set is not enough today. The ability to embrace risk is a necessity as well as the recognition that with risk comes failure. Working with a number of clients who are assessing their leadership bench strength (aka succession planning), we’ve discovered that many experienced managers, who have come up through the ranks, become more risk averse when the stakes get bigger. To many management teams, taking risks suggests carelessness and waste. But competent innovators possess high level critical thinking skills too, extracting success from claws of chaos. (In deference to many managers, risk aversion is not their fault. Most business incentive plans don’t value innovation. Performance systems compound the problem. They reward operational efficiency, reducing costs, or increasing sales and penalize people for taking risk and making mistakes, fundamental ingredients for innovation. )
Resilience and Self-Control. Innovative cultures recognize that many innovations are going to fail. A lot of managers just don’t have the stomach for that. They want ideas that work, and they want 95% assurance that what you’re proposing is actually going to pay off. You can’t do that with innovation. Innovation takes a certain amount of guts. That means two additional traits required for innovation are resilience and self-control, the desire to keep going against all odds and not burnout or become stressed out during the process.
Interpersonal Skills. Many innovative projects die due to a failure to communicate. Top managers often put the best technical people in charge, not the best leaders. Technically oriented managers assume ideas will speak for themselves. When they do speak, they use a language that mystifies their audiences. Innovation teams that are assembled without consideration to interpersonal skills find it difficult to take advantage of the different strengths various members bring to a project. Communication is strained if not avoided and knowledge is shared incompletely on an as needed basis.
Collaboration. To innovate, you must collaborate. Collaboration is no longer something you do when assigned to a special project, but it is a continuous, spontaneous approach to work exhibited by all employees all the time. The winners will be those that enable their employees to create more profits by putting their collective mind power to better use.
Dealing with Ambiguity or Paradox and Working at a Fast Pace. Finally new findings in our leadership research show that the ability to deal with complexity and work (and think) at a fast pace are critical skills. They seem to be at a premium these days. Many managers who were initially selected as the prototype to which potential successors would be compared are failing under the fast changing pace of dynamic markets and the complexity of competition. The capacity to innovate isn’t enough if results don’t outpace the competition and unexpected challenges derail the people in charge.
Knowing your company’s readiness for change and tolerance for innovation are two big hurdles to jump before declaring innovation is the critical strategic driver that will grow your business. Without having the right people with the right mindset to deploy your business plan, your vision will be more a blur of possibility than a kaleidoscope of opportunity.
About the Author:
Ira S Wolfe is president of Success Performance Solutions and author of The Perfect Labor Storm 2.0: Workforce Trends That Will Change the Way You Do Business. He is considered one of the nation’s authorities on hiring the right people, managing the generations and workforce trends.