For millennia, artists and artisans provided the most influential innovations in the world. For commoners and kings alike, these talented humans devised better ways to weave rugs and design ornate thrones, build fishing boats and ships of war, fashion Sunday bonnets and jewel-encrusted crowns, with demand always greatly outpacing supply. They used their imagination and unparalleled skills to redefine the world around them.
Enter the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly products were able to be faithfully reproduced on a massive scale. All a factory owner needed was an idea and some investment, and soon even those of modest means could experience life-changing innovations in their homes and workplaces. Artisans became assembly line workers and, if they labored hard and long enough, were elevated to the status of office workers. Innovation became commonplace while innovators, as popular opinion holds, became incredibly rare.
“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” - J.K. Rowling
A Hidden Innovator’s Internal Conflict
Some time ago, I spent all day leading a class of young leaders for an organization who, wisely, was investing in its future executives. The company they worked for had spent decades bringing intelligent and impactful market innovations forward for dozens of large clients.
This organization had recruited, attracted, hired, and invested in a very specific type of person and this room was filled with the most prolific among them. Excited responses and ideas erupted from each of the future leaders. Except for one woman. Let's call her Jennifer (that’s not her actual name). She started the day engaged, but had become quieter the more we talked about being innovators. I needed to understand why she was feeling out of place.
"Who here considers themselves an innovator?" All hands except hers went up. "Who in this room feels like the company benefits from your good ideas?" All hands except Jennifer's. Now, I had to ask her more directly, "Why don't you feel like an innovator?"
Her response was an amazing, direct insight into the psyche of an innovator, "Because I do a very specific set of tasks every day for a very large number of clients. I don't have time to innovate. It's just not what I do."
In truth, Jennifer was one of the most valued members of her team, and her insights were routinely sought out by others throughout the company, from her teammates to the CEO. The tasks that she mentioned doing every day? She invented every one of them. Then, over a period of years she refined them to make them more efficient, leading to completely new profit channels. Everyone told me they saw Jennifer as a prolific innovator. "There's never been anyone that could do what she can do," was said more than once. In a company who valued innovation above almost all else, why did such a premier innovator feel like an outsider?
Build A Culture of Innovation
The answer is because there are multiple types of innovators, and very few organizations understand and appreciate all types. Most organizations naturally evolve to value only one type of innovator at most. From recruiting approaches to incentives, the personality of the organization obviously reflects this preference. But organizations who want to excel in today’s demanding markets must be holistic innovators. To be a truly innovative organization, you must cultivate a culture of innovation. To do so, an organization must recruit, nurture, and amplify all types of innovators, across all internal silos.
As anyone with a growth mindset working in a fixed mindset organization knows, that’s much easier said than done. So how do you begin creating a culture of innovation in an existing organization? Well, for starters, you don’t do it alone.
Over the next several posts I’ll be introducing you, with insights provided by Dr. Lindsay M. Sutton and Marc Beaumont, to our Innovator Personas. These personas have been created through decades of experience in innovation management and behavioral science, to help leaders and organizations identify, understand, and nurture their innovators. These are the “other” innovators in your midst that you may be overlooking, undervaluing, or just not aware of or understand how they are transforming your organization. You are not going to want to miss this series, so stay tuned!
This is the first article in a series. You may want to continue the series by moving on to the second article.