In this series we have taken care to introduce you to examples of personas we see in the space of innovation. You’ve met Sam, our Synthesizer, who knows a little about a lot and loves to simplify complex information and ideas. You met Shannon, our Sage, who knows a lot about a little and loves to dig deep for insights others may have a hard time even comprehending. Then you met Tim, our Tinkerer, who is a compulsive maker that loves to assemble components and find practical new uses for existing tools. Dane, our Dreamer, spends much of his time imagining how the world could be, to the point of sometimes seeming untethered from reality in the minds of his more practical peers. Finally, you met Lee, our Leveler, whose form of innovation is an intense knowledge of her team, and how they prefer to interact with the world, which provides a constant, supportive catalyst.
These innovative specialists are our "Hidden Innovators" because we know that they often remain unrecognized by their companies and peers. Their specialized traits and behaviors may result in seemingly magical productivity, but they don't match up to the company's idea of innovation. This can leave the innovator feeling invisible, unsupported, and unappreciated, as was the case with Jennifer in our first article (I'll come back to her later).
We also know that there are those among us who have all of the necessary core traits to become an innovator, but have yet to find their unique personality. In "The Traits of Hidden Innovators" we covered the core traits that we believe serve as a necessary foundation for all innovators, acknowledging that not everyone has these traits.
Finally, we know there are mature, well-rounded, innovators in our midst as well. These people, over time, develop themselves into impressive, one-person innovation crews. They’re the opposite of hidden. In fact, they couldn’t hide even if they wanted to. We call them “obvious innovators” and they have an important role to play in our world. Let’s meet one.
Meet Cheryl - The Sage Tinkerer
Meet Cheryl, who just earned her Ph.D. in Psychology. Assuming Cheryl has a growth mindset and the core traits associated with being an innovator, this event likely puts her pretty squarely in our Sage persona. She goes on to start a research lab at a major university.
Content to spend her days tending to her research and furthering her learning, Cheryl spends most of her time crafting and implementing tests and evaluations. The constant building, learning, testing, and repeating process Cheryl follows every day tones down some of her sharper Sage traits while building new traits we would normally associate with a Tinkerer. Cheryl is gradually becoming a Sage Tinkerer, which positions her to become one of the foremost researchers in her field.
A decade into her career, Cheryl’s Tinkerer prototyping and testing reaches new heights as her ever-sharpening Sage mind connects some previously unconnected dots. She’s had a breakthrough in her research. Her increasing abilities as a Tinkerer have now fully complemented her Sage knowledge, leading to a potential unique innovation in her field.
But now, Cheryl is the only human who fully understands this discovery. She finds that she is able to explain bits and pieces of the breakthrough to another Sage in her group, but she is frustrated to find that she is unable to convey the entire concept to anyone. For this innovation to come to life, Cheryl must now become a Synthesizer.
Cheryl is only one example. We could talk about Dreamer Synths, who know they have amazing ideas but find only confused looks and dismissive attitudes until they learn to communicate them with beautiful visuals. The Tinkerer Sage, who started out as a shadetree mechanic but ends up building race cars that push the boundaries of physics. Dreamer Tinkerers (inventors), Dreamer Synths (visionaries), Sage Synths (professors), Leveler Tinkerers (founders). The combinations are many, and when combining the personas you’re more likely to begin thinking of people you already know as innovators.
These impressive, well-rounded humans almost always find a way to make their voices heard and their innovations experienced. We call these people "obvious innovators" and they are often the opposite of "hidden."
Obvious Innovators (and the burnout culture)
Unlike our Hidden Innovators, these obvious innovators are known, acknowledged, and praised in many organizations. Their unique combination of traits makes them invaluable, and the more traits they are able to productively develop, the more valuable they become. Words like “rock star” and “unicorn” are used to describe them. They seem superhuman. Companies go to great lengths to attract, support, and retain these individuals, and finding or hiring one is cause for celebration.
The realities of this super-producer relationship, however, can be insidious. The unfortunate truth is that many companies find and praise these obvious innovators simply because, as difficult as it is, it’s still easier than building a culture that consistently recognizes and supports contributing specialists like our Hidden Innovators. Too often, the presence of a very few obvious innovators serves as enough evidence that a company has become innovative. The mirage is convincing, until a key innovator makes a decision to leave.
Seen from the innovator's point of view, things can be very different. The reward for hard work is, generally, more hard work, which can lead to burnout. But even without burnout, these aggressively growth-minded individuals tend to outgrow any box they find themselves in, given enough time. They may love their job, or they may hate it, either way they are unlikely to remain in it forever.
Did you ever wonder what happened to Jennifer, from our first post? Even after being told that she didn’t feel supported, the company continued to misunderstand her personality and undervalue her contributions. Exasperated, she eventually left for a new job, making a lot more money, in a new city, at a company that culturally values Tinkerer-Sages like her. She and her new company are excited about the future. Her former company? They’ve now hired four people in an attempt to replace her, yet the gap she left behind remains.
But what if organizations could make more innovators happier, find and develop new innovators, and create environments that lead to routine innovation? That's where our Hidden Innovators become so important (I told you I’d come back to it).
Specialization is at the core of generating the highest possible performance. So why do we still treat innovation, which has increasingly become a singular measure of success, as the sole responsibility of individual, high-performing generalists like Cheryl? We need to reset our mindset about what innovation means.
Innovation is a behavior, not a buzzword.
We have very intentionally focused on behaviors in this series. Much like talent, creativity, or confidence, we continue to hear innovation referred to as an innate ability, possessed by a few mysterious, lucky individuals. However, we believe that innovation (much like talent, creativity, and confidence) should be viewed as a set of behaviors. Why is this such an important distinction? Because behaviors can be observed, taught, developed, and even incentivized, while innate abilities are dismissed as "you have them or you don't."
If we acknowledge innovation as a set of behaviors, we are better equipped to recognize, appreciate, and support those who have specialized in a subset of those behaviors. We can acknowledge that a company is great at finding and building Dreamers, but needs to learn to find and support Tinkerers to become truly innovative. Finally, it opens up great possibilities for us to assemble these behaviors, and the humans who display them, into complementary teams.
If you set out to assemble a team with the goal of performing at the highest possible level, who would be on the roster? In professional sports (which I’d argue knows a little bit about building teams) each position would be filled by the foremost specialist the team can find, recruit, or develop. With baseball as an example, your center fielder and pitcher are two very different athletes. You don’t want them to learn to play other positions, you want them to excel at their specialty. Teams tasked with creating unique, meaningful innovations shouldn’t be any different.
To illustrate this, let’s take a moment to consider Cheryl again. Cheryl has now spent another five years learning to be an effective Synthesizer, making her a much more well-rounded, and even more obvious, innovator. She is now fully capable of uncovering more new knowledge, and delivering it to conference rooms filled with adoring fans. Her Sage traits have softened in places, while her Tinkerer and Synthesizer traits have increased, leading to a much more well-rounded set of innovative behaviors and traits. Her graph may now look like this:
Cheryl spent decades acquiring an impressive set of behaviors and traits that allow her to contribute to the world in a unique way. But if you knew and understood our Hidden Innovators, a team could be assembled that would have unfair advantages over Cheryl. More viewpoints, more dedicated time, and more personal networks, and the traits and skills that Cheryl hasn't developed yet, such as becoming a Leveler (which would be necessary if, for example, she wanted to build and run a company).
For comparison, consider a graph representing the combination of the personas we’ve introduced you to over this series:
Imagine a world where a young Cheryl meets Lee (a solid Leveler), who introduces Cheryl to Tim (a world-class Tinkerer in the same field) and Sam (a top-notch Synthesizer) from an adjacent industry. Even our obvious innovators can be assembled into teams, and when you do so, you pretty quickly arrive at the same conclusion every high-performing organization already knows.
Teams outperform individuals.
In this introductory series we have attempted to scratch the surface of modern innovation, with the most detail (intentionally) placed on the Hidden Innovators and their unique, specialist behaviors. We are working to learn more, dig deeper, and build more meaningful innovations, teams, and cultures and we believe there are some real, practical steps we can all start taking together. It starts with adjusting the way we think about the concept of innovation.
In order for an innovation to be meaningful, it must be adopted by a willing audience. In order to convince an audience to adopt anything new, you must solve more problems than you create for them. In this light, it’s easy to see why the standard definition of innovation, “The introduction of something new” (Merriam-Webster) is inadequate in today’s corporate environments. To be successful, innovations must be desirable, feasible, and viable within the ecosystem they are attempting to change.
We believe that we can start to change the conversation by introducing a new, more conscientious definition.
Innovation is a new, productive behavior that overcomes adversity.
An intelligent, healthy focus on defining both the adversity (problem) and expected outcome allows innovators to more confidently put forth new solutions that more often find acceptance.
We must stop referring to innovation as some natural, innate ability that only a few lucky individuals were born with.
Innovators are built, not born.
Seen as a set of behaviors, we acknowledge that we can observe, develop, learn, and teach them. This concept alone greatly extends the pool of people that may contribute new, productive ideas and approaches. After all, if a team must effectively navigate a difficult corporate environment, those experts in understanding and navigating that environment quickly become some of our most valuable allies and teammates. The possibilities don’t stop there.
Culture is a term often presented with an air of mystery. Let’s demystify it (this time, using a standard definition).
A culture is simply a collection of social behaviors and norms.
A culture necessarily represents those participating in it, and building one isn’t magic (although it’s not easy). A culture of innovation is no different, and if we can understand innovation in a new light, we can begin crafting teams that better support innovative behaviors. The natural outcome of building, supporting, and growing these teams is a representative culture. From little league baseball teams to societies, cultures are built from small (often invisible), consistent behaviors performed over a requisite period of time.
If one wants to create a culture of innovation, they need only build a container that exists in support of it, not in spite of it. Which leads us to our next series, focusing on organizationally finding these hidden innovators and putting them in positions to succeed.
If you’ve read this far, thank you! You likely know by now that Hidden Innovators is an ongoing social experiment at most, and a conversation starter at the least. And the conversation is just beginning.
We continue to learn from, work with, and talk to as many innovators as possible. From "I never thought of myself as innovative until now." to "I finally know how to talk to and support my teammates." Each tells a unique story filled with amazing lessons for those willing to listen, and we’re listening. If you want to add your voice, and we genuinely hope you do,reach out. Let’s continue the conversation, and the work, and make the world a little more innovative together!