5 characteristics that are crucial for every innovator

Our brains are hardwired to discover patterns. That’s why people are able to come up with solutions for familiar problems at lightning speed. Sadly, we’re generally also terrible at letting go of old ideas. If you desire to be a true innovator you should fight this weakness. True innovators have no difficulty abandoning their original plan in exchange for a more suitable alternative.

It’s human nature to hold on to the things you’re familiar with. The ‘threat of losing something that you know’ and the ‘insecurity of the unknown’ are strong feelings that activate our defence system. Angry, sad, fearful, disappointed, aggressive etc. We all have experienced from up close how high the tensions can run when opponents meet. As soon as it becomes a two-championship, with seemingly opposite interests, the gap only increases with every new discussion …

Creativity is not about who’s right or wrong. Sure, you need a little bit of ego and persuasion to pitch an idea, but it takes a lot more than that. Above all, creativity is about the ability to let go of existing ideas, to embrace ambiguity and to think along with your ‘opponents’. Luckily, these secrets to being a master innovator are skills that can be learned, just like creative thinking itself.

5 tricks to being a master innovator

1. Set a meta-goal
Goal-oriented work is crucial for innovation. As an innovator, it’s essential to know what you want to achieve with a new idea and why this is important. Having a target helps to convince colleagues and customers of the value of your idea and offers guidance during the process.

It’s important to set a specific goal. However, a goal can also be too narrow. It’s best to leave some space to allow yourself to reach your goal. If necessary via other ways. The outcome (what you want to achieve) must be clear, yet you don’t want to fill in the details (how you will achieve this) in advance. You must, therefore, incorporate flexibility. One way to do this is, is with a meta-goal. A clear objective that everyone gets, but which can be realized in several ways.

2. Share your thought process
Putting all your cards on the table is often scary. It makes you vulnerable. Yet, you can’t realize change without trust. Therefore, it’s advisable to share your thoughts. Do not just explain your preferred outcome, but also explain why you think this is the best option. Be aware that not everything can be explained in a rational way. Feelings are important too. If you struggle to get people on the same page, use the ‘Six Thinking Hats’ technique by Edward de Bono. It offers a great way to facilitate parallel thinking and to force people to see things from a positive, negative and creative angle.

Don’t dig in your heels, stating that the product should be green and that all other colours are stupid. This is not very productive. Instead, share your thought process. For example: ‘I prefer the colour green because it looks fresh. I have the feeling that the original blue colour makes our product look stiff and unappealing to our customers.’ This approach allows you to have a fruitful and constructive discussion. For example, you could look for another fresh-looking colour, or you could look for creative ways to make the product appear less stiff and corporate. You shift the attention from one particular approach (the disliked idea) to the desired outcome (in what other ways can we reach our goal?).

3. Be prepared to move
There will always be reasons why something might not work. Even if the idea itself is brilliant, the customer thinks it’s fantastic and there is a conclusive business case. There can still be all sorts of forces which make that an idea will not be executed. As an innovator, it’s your job to keep pushing forward and to feed the project with positive energy. During the execution, you will always encounter setbacks. A supplier who doubles his prices at the last moment, an investor who withdraws from the deal, a partner who drops out, an important customer who leaves, etc. At every moment in time, you will have plenty arguments at hand to justify quitting. Implementing new ideas is hard work and full of disappointments. So be aware in advance that these things can (and will) happen. Learn to live with it.

It can be extremely annoying to be confronted with unexpected setbacks. However, this is part of the job. If you find yourself stuck, go back to the drawing board. Explore alternative ways to reach your goal, or come up with creative solutions to overcome your obstacles. Stay positive, and keep going.

4. Think along and offer alternatives
As an innovator, you’ll need the help of others to implement your ideas. That’s why empathy plays a major role in innovation. It makes no sense to impose your ideas. You need ideas which inspire and which pull people towards them. You need ambassadors who believe in your mission and who are willing to spend a lot of time and energy on it. To create fans you need to involve stakeholders and utilize their ideas.

Of course, you will also stumble upon stakeholders who are uncomfortable with your ideas or even afraid. It’s your job to take away their fears and to get them on board. Don’t get angry because people disagree with you, but try to understand them and see it from their point of view. Ask them to share why they think it should or shouldn’t be done in a certain way. Try to unravel their worries and beliefs and use these (meta) values to find common ground. Once you’ve mapped out people’s core motivations you can use these to explore new ideas that better match their perspective. Try to find the better alternative.

As an exercise, you can also ask people to agree with you for just one minute (Needless to say, it’s best when you too agree for one minute with your opponent). Adopt the opinion of your opponent for sixty seconds. Try to understand his or her inner motivates. What do you think or feel? Why? After the assignment, you are likely to have a better understanding of the values ideas and reasoning of your opponent. Darwin famously used this technique (known as ‘steelmanning’) to prepare for the inevitable criticism on ‘The Origin of Species‘.

5. Protect your queen
All the characteristics above are about developing a flexible mindset and the willingness to adapt to the circumstances in order to achieve your goal. However, there is another important skill. In addition to being diplomatic, peace-keeping and constructive, you also need to be a fighter.

Altering details during the process is often of little importance and seldom worth the fight. However, when your concept (your core idea or objective) is being challenged, you have to defend your kingdom. Apart from coming up with new ideas, ‘creative supervision’ is a key skill for innovation. So save your energy, and pick your battles wisely.

Don’t let anyone change the goal of your innovation during the process (unless they have solid arguments and you agree with them).

If you present a creative idea, people will often come up with new ideas to make it their own. As long as these ideas are valuable additions, it’s fine to consider them. However, be careful not to get carried away by friendly advice. Before you know it you catch ‘Featuritis’ or drift away from your main goal and target audience.

Fight for consistency. If everything is red, don’t make some things yellow simply because a manager prefers that colour (unless it makes sense to have an anomaly). Be careful with compromise. It’s great to respect people’s opinions, however, it’s best to have one creative supervisor (often the innovation/project owner) who makes the final decision. After all, a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

Ask people for their input, but don’t let them alter the key concept itself. Narrow it down like parents do. If you ask children what they want for dinner they will likely respond with a big smile, screaming ‘Pizza!’ If you frame the question differently and ask them what veggies they would like to eat for dinner; broccoli or spinach? You allow them to have a say, give them the feeling that they are taken seriously, and steer their response towards an outcome that matches your own goal.


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