Tuesday, February 02, 2010

How to spot - or avoid - innovators

As always, we'd like to make our readers and clients happy.  In that vein, I'd like to introduce how to spot people who are likely innovators.  In this way, you can identify them more quickly, and choose to hire them if you want to be more innovative, or you can ignore and avoid them if the status quo is more your scene.  Good luck with that strategy, by the way.

Identifying people who are innovators is actually relatively easy.  They are the ones who don't actually seem to belong the organization in the first place.

Innovators tend to:

  • Reject the standard framing of a problem and restate the problem or opportunity.  Rather than work within the given constructs or framing, many innovators want to toss out the framing and start anew.  Just like Galileo, this may require working against an orthodoxy, yet nonetheless, it moves and so must we.  Those folks who are so problematic about wanting to change or expand the framing of a problem?  Probably good innovators.
  • Be optimistic.  They are almost always the glass half full people.  Pessimistic people will focus far too much energy on the "problem" while innovators will acknowledge the problem and move on to find interesting solutions.  They believe the problems are merely temporary barriers to more interesting solutions.
  • Look to the future for signals rather than to the past.  In most businesses, many people will ask "has this been done before" and "what can we learn from that success or failure.  Innovators want to know "can we be the first" and what signals in the market or environment give us indications that we'll be successful
  • Care about solving unmet or poorly understood challenges.  Often innovators are going beyond the obvious, ordinary problems to uncover deeper unmet or poorly understood issues.  If your team is captivated by solving an obvious and incremental problem, they aren't innovators.
  • Network with people different than they are.  Evidence suggests that the best innovators are people who read outside of their industry, interact with people from many different backgrounds and interests and seek to bring solutions from outside their industry to the table.  People who are very deep in one industry but ignore signals and solutions from other industries are usually not very innovative.
  • Are proactive.  Innovators actively seek change while many executives are content to wait and react to what other firms do.
  • Are dissatisfied with the status quo and willing to change it rather than simply accept the status quo and merely complain.
  • Are very comfortable learning, trying and failing, and then trying again.  They aren't stymied by a single failure and are usually very determined to start again, reframe the problem and try a new tack or approach, learning from previous failures and incorporating that knowledge.
So, if you are in the market to hire someone and want to know if he or she is likely to be an innovator, look for these signs:

  • Ask them about an existing problem that you have.  See if they are perfectly willing to accept your framing, or if they request the opportunity to reframe or change the frame entirely.  If the latter, a likely innovator.
  • Ask them about existing societal problems or corporate problems or challenges.  Listen to how they approach the problem and their willingness to suggest changes or alternatives and the possibilities they suggest for change.
  • In the context of a problem, what information do they seek - external, future oriented or internal information about the past?
  • Can they name a big failure in their lives and demonstrate what they learned and how that failure helped them gain more insight into an eventual solution?
  • Can they name five people in relatively senior positions they interact with on a regular basis who are from different industries?  Can they demonstrate an active network outside of their "home" industry?
The kinds of answers you get with these questions will tell you how strong the "innovation" force is within the candidate, and whether you should hire that person or turn the Force against them.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:35 AM


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