An Innovator’s Mindset: Traits of a Strategic Innovator

Anyone can train to be a gladiator. What marks you out is having the mindset of a champion. – Manu Bennett

There is increasing recognition that there exists a quality – a propensity, a behavior an outlook – called ‘innovative’, that is distinct from other mental and behavioral qualities such as ‘creative’, ‘inventive’, ‘entrepreneurial’, etc. Books have been written about this quality (See Isaacson[i], Dyer[ii], Brown[iii] just to name a few) that try and describe the qualities and patterns of behavior of being innovative. What is frustrating about many of these characterizations of ‘innovative’ is that there is often no clear distinction made between skills, mindset and mere behavioral actions.

The task of organizing innovation teams and tasking them with specific innovation initiatives requires that one confront head-on the issue of recruiting and dealing with different types of people in a practical way. Years of experience managing and directing hundreds of innovation projects in all sorts of organizations has resulted in a perspective about the quality of being ‘innovative’ that focuses on two distinct dimensions – the skill dimension and the mindset dimension.

  • An innovation skill[iv] is something that can be taught and learned through training and practice. They may be difficult to learn, and not everyone is able to become a master at every skill, but, with practice, one can get better.
  • An Innovation mindset affects how you approach or view situations you encounter – the beliefs, opinions and motivations that underlie your worldview and ultimately your behavior. It is different than personality (see OCEAN[v]) although personality and mindset can and do influence each other. Two people with very different personalities can have very similar mindsets. Mindsets are very hard to change.

Research about mindset (e.g. Dweck[vi]) and tools that try to measure and categorize mindset (see Kirton[vii] or CARE[viii]/DISC[ix] assessments) exist but they only apply in a general sense. What we as innovators are interested in are those specific innovative mindsets that compel people to act and behave in ways that cause innovation to happen.

People with an innovative mindset are required if an organization is to pursue strategic opportunities[x], i.e. those that are outside the company’s comfort zone. In the course of interviewing a number of innovators and the leaders who enable them at major companies the following innovative attributes were repeatedly mentioned.

  • Ambidextrous (embody the polarities below)
  • Desire to engage diverse communities
  • Future vision/orientation
  • Empathy with, and passion for, the adopter
  • Curious with a practical orientation
  • Sense of humility
  • Creative with a desire for realization
  • Tolerance for ambiguity/uncertainty
  • Motivated by outcomes
  •  Individual perspective & confidence

People with these attributes are critical to successful innovation. What is striking about the mindset attributes mentioned time and again by the people interviewed are the seemingly conflicting polarities embodied in the innovative mindset. The ability to be ambidextrous – to have two seemingly opposed perspectives in mind at once – is a required ‘meta’-mindset for an innovator. Some of the polarities identified for this ambidextrous mindset are:

  • Visionary and practical – unerring belief in success but totally realistic about challenges – the classic Stockdale paradox[xi] – an ambitious view of what is ahead but knowing what is achievable
  • Perceiver and judger – valuing qualitative information, looking for possibilities and delaying evaluation but data driven (when appropriate) and able to make specific decisions, define specific paths and terminate unpromising activities
  • Humble and forceful/influential – realizing that not enough is understood and that all the answers are not known but pushes for resolution and decision
  • Disciplined and adaptable – focused on specific tasks and deliverables yet can adjust and adapt to changing situations and discovered knowledge
  • Tolerant and impatient – understands uncertainty and ambiguity but wants quick results – either positive or negative
  • Isolated and networked – works outside established organizational structures yet is highly connected to others within and without the organization

People with these mindset attributes may not fit in well with the operational performance side of the company. They are, nevertheless, important players in a company’s transformational growth efforts.

[i]       Isaacson, W.; The Innovators; Simon & Schuster (October 7, 2014)

[ii]      Christensen, C, Dyer, J, Gregersen, H; The Innovator’s DNA; Harvard Business Review Press; 1 edition (July 12, 2011)

[iii]      Kelley, T, Littman, J; The Ten Faces of Innovation; Crown Business; 1 edition (February 14, 2006)

[iv]     Schmitt, L.; An Innovator’s Skillset; Innovate Innovation blog;

[v]      Wikipedia; The Big 5 Personality Traits;

[vi]     Dweck, C.; Mindset:The New Psychology of Success; Random House; Reprint edition (February 28, 2006)

[vii]     Kirton, M. J.; Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI)

[viii]    Dreistadt, M; Team Dynamics: The 4 Positions the Create and Effective team; blog post; February 2012

[ix]      Wikipedia; DISC Assessment;

[x]      Schmitt, L.; Strategic Innovation; The Inovo Group whitepaper; May 2012

[xi]      Collins, J.; Good to Great; HarperBusiness; 1 edition (July 19, 2011)

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