Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Quirky: Traits innovators share

Thanks to my blog, and hopefully the insights I share here, I'm often asked to review books about innovation and innovators.  Recently I was asked to review a book entitled Quirky.  The subtitle is:  The Remarkable Story of the Traits, Foibles, and Genius of Breakthrough Innovators Who Changed the World.  Their capitalization, not mine.

The traits that innovators possess or share has been an interest of mine for quite a while.  I researched this topic for years, reading academic papers, books and doing our own research to identify traits or characteristics that innovators have in common, so you can imagine this book was of interest to me.

Quirky is as quirky does

Melissa Schilling, who is a professor at NYU, took an interesting approach when writing this book.  She focused on just a handful of breakthrough innovators, going deeply into their development and lives.  This deep dive presents some interesting data, but since the population of innovators is small and, to say the least a bit strange in its selection, I wonder if everything she reports is definitive.

Schilling selects her breakthrough innovators across history, including Madame Curie, Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Tesla, Einstein, Elon Musk and of course Steve Jobs.   These are, without a doubt, important innovators and very quirkly people.  To my way of thinking this is a very expansive group, with very different innovation goals and outcomes.  Several of these never commercialized a product; they created scientific insights.  Some were very mercenary - they only wanted to create things that had value to customers.  Some were serial innovators across a wide spectrum of industries, some were deep thinkers in one specific setting.  While all of these are recognizable innovators, I wonder if the sample size is really large enough - or perhaps too diverse in a small sample - to draw conclusions.

Schilling looks for similarities across these innovators, and to no surprise finds many.  They are all self-starters, many are autodidacts, bored with day to day stuff and constantly seeking new solution.  They are passionate about their work, they have visions about better solutions.  They work till they drop and expect others to do the same.  They are almost separate from the people they live and work with.  They were extremely sure of their own insights, rarely doubting themselves.  Most were consummate outsiders.  These findings, of themselves, are interesting but not particularly new.  Clayton Christensen and others wrote about 5 traits they noticed in corporate innovators in the book The Innovator's DNA.  Others have noted that most innovators are motivated by intrinsic issues, which fuels their passion.  Anyone who has attempted to create a new product knows the struggles a new idea faces in becoming a new product or service, so passion and stubbornness are almost a job requirement for innovators.

Positives and Concerns

The book does a good job identifying and calling out some of the core traits that innovators often share.  It does this by digging deeply into the lives of the handful of innovators Schilling profiles.  In many chapters the history and backstory of a selected innovator takes up close to half the chapter.  I learned more about Tesla and Curie than I had known, and gained new insights into Jobs' early career.  This research depth is good but detracts from getting on with the points the author wants to make.

There are really seven attributes that Schilling identifies:
  1. Sense of Separateness
  2. Extreme Confidence
  3. Creativity
  4. Higher purpose
  5. Driven to Work
  6. Opportunities in the era
  7. Access to resources
But these aren't all given the same attention.  The separateness, confidence and creativity chapters are long and involved.  Toward the latter half of the book the traits aren't nearly as fleshed out and don't really illuminate the key topic as well as earlier chapters do.

While the research is evident, Schilling is often drawing conclusions or making observations with very limited data and the qualitative nature of the research shows.  In one long paragraph about separateness she uses the word "may" five or six times when showing how separateness contributes to innovation.  Suggestive but not definitive.  And she either ignored or didn't validate some traits that the innovators themselves identified.  For example, Jobs is famous for describing his approach to innovating based on "beginner's mind" - looking at a problem with fresh eyes.

Some of her research and findings conflict with other research, demonstrating how poorly defined and understood innovation is.  She focuses a lot on separateness, noting that "solitude is valuable for creativity" but often fails to note how involved and collaborative much of this work is.  Using Edison as an example for isolation is a bit much - he worked constantly with a large team, many of the "muckers" from his lab (Batchelor, Upton and others) named in the book.

The upshot

This is a good book, worth your time if only for the detailed histories of some very interesting people (Tesla alone is worth the read).  Schilling does a good job identifying some of the characteristics that this handful of innovators shared but doesn't fully prove that these are all necessary or that there aren't other attributes that are just as vital.  This is a book that was clearly carefully researched - the extensive footnotes prove that - but it seems to ignore or overlook some of the good work on innovator characteristics and traits that have been published before.

In short there's not a lot "new" here, but a good encapsulation of some of the traits innovators share and why they matter.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:58 AM


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