Hidden innovators

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Finding the Leonardo da Vincis, Thomas Edisons and ‘the rest of us’ for project teams.

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October 7, 2021

Most people who work in a corporate environment are familiar with some type of personal style indicator — Meyers Briggs Type Indicator, Strengths Finder, DISC profile, and many others. However, there’s a less well-known one that’s particularly relevant and useful in innovation and it is specific to your creative thinking style.

At the heart of creativity and innovation is problem-solving. Since all humans problem-solve, by definition, all humans are creative. However, we each go about problem-solving in our own preferred style, and society has come to label only one style as being “creative” — the style called “Innovator” on this assessment.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci as an extreme example of that Innovator style. He was an idea machine, constantly jumping around in numerous disciplines. Many of his ideas were truly ground-breaking. He conceptualized a helicopter, a tank, a calculator, and concentrated solar power. He even outlined a rudimentary theory of plate tectonics.

Thomas Edison is a great example of a creative thinker with an Adaptive style. He held more than 1,000 U.S. patents. However, many of the products he patented, perfected, and commercialized were not originally conceptualized by him. He did not actually invent the light bulb, he developed a light bulb that was practical. He was able to improve, fix, optimize, and operationalize ideas better than perhaps anyone else in history.

It is important to note that your thinking style is an indicator of preference, not of ability. Any of us can think and behave in another style — and we all do it effectively when we recognize it’s needed. But we go back to our preferred style as soon as we can. It’s where we’re most comfortable and probably where we’re most consistently successful.

This chart illustrates some key traits of extreme Adaptors and extreme Innovators.

The important question becomes, who should be running your innovation projects?

Extreme innovators are great at coming up with ideas, and their energy and passion for ideas may get other people excited about them, at least at the beginning. But then their greatest strength — their zest and constant quest for new ideas — becomes a weakness that starts to create problems. In short, they’ll drive everyone on the team crazy and jeopardize the success of the project. So, an extreme Innovator may not be the person you want to run the show. They’re probably a lead actor, but they shouldn’t be the producer.

The next logical conclusion might be the extreme Adaptors should manage the process. They’re organized, disciplined, and efficient. But similarly, their strengths can also become weaknesses at the extremes. High Adaptors’ discomfort with ambiguity will likely result in attempting to define the scope of projects too early or kill them altogether if the ambiguity can’t be resolved quickly. And their focus on the stated problem may prevent them from seeing solutions or opportunities outside their day-to-day world.

Where does that leave you? With everyone else. Here’s the great news: everyone else is most of us because 67% of the population is in the middle of these two extremes.

If you want someone who may be naturally inclined to manage an innovation process, pick someone more in the middle, who can be a Bridger. The benefits of a Bridger in this role are numerous because they naturally exhibit moderate traits of both adaption and innovation. They “get” the vision of the big idea that the extreme Innovator came up with. They’ll get excited and energized about ideas. They can live with ambiguity for a while. But they also see the need for organization and documentation. They’ll understand the challenges that will have to be solved to implement that big idea. They can stay focused and see projects through to the end. They’ll bridge the communication gap between the high Innovators and the high Adaptors on the team.

They haven’t had people telling them their whole lives they’re creative thinkers, so they may not think of themselves as a good fit for innovation. The role of those responsible for innovation in your company should be to convince the “everyone elses” in the middle that they’re needed in the innovation process — and help them see how their unique contributions can be incredibly valuable in this arena.

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to adapt more nimbly to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Susan brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. susanrobertson.co