An Innovator’s Skill Set – Eight Ways to Improve Your Capacity to Innovate

Sorry to disappoint but not everyone is an innovator (nor should they be). Everyone can be creative, everyone can think critically, everyone can invent and ‘deductively tinker’ but while these and other capabilities, are necessary to the activity we call innovation, they are not, by themselves, sufficient. What a leading innovator has, just like any other skilled profession, are certain skills that are the result of a combination of nature and nurture.

Skills are enabled and enhanced by certain personality traits and mindsets but, much more so than cognitive styles  or habits of mind, skills are distinct ways of acting and behaving that can be taught, practiced and learned.  Innovation, like any other highly skilled activity or profession, can be practiced by anyone but few make it to the very top. The ones that do have the mindset, the thinking skills and have put in the 10,000 hours of practice it takes to become the best.

The following list of skills has been assembled over the past 12 years and is based on the experience gained from hundreds of innovation projects involving thousands of individuals (and making a lot of mistakes) and they may not be what you think. No one rates a ‘10’ on every skill and it is interesting to note that it is very rare to see any of these skills listed on a resume. Moreover, it is very hard to test for many these in an interview or in a brief exercise. No wonder that hiring a truly innovative person is so difficult.

The skills below complement and enhance the types of skills discussed by others such as The Innovator’s DNA (Dyer) and  T-shaped people (Brown). They are highly correlated to innovation success but don’t think that this list is exhaustive or even causal. They are, however, the best we have assembled so far and we use them as a guide for what we need to constantly work on.

So take this list as you should any other list, as a guide to inform, challenge, extend and improve upon.

  1. Outreach Engagement – The ability to build knowledge networks to find the most valuable sources of knowledge and connect and engage with them in interactive observing and listening. This skill involves finding and connecting to the right people throughout an entire ecosystem that you personally may not be familiar with, engaging with them in the right way and capturing all relevant knowledge including the conscious and the sub-conscious, the rational and the emotional.
  2. Dispassionate Empathy – The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experience the motivations that underlie behaviors of interest. The skill of empathy is critical to understanding needs and desires. Just feeling the same emotion as your customer isn’t enough however.  Being able to take a step back and examine the ‘why’ of the emotion is necessary for understanding motivation and behavior and the different motivational segments, or personas, of your customers.
  3. Active Discovery – The ability to quickly explore, discover and understand new knowledge and gain relevant insight even in areas that are unfamiliar.  The use of skeptical curiosity is necessary to be creative in finding and interpreting facts, opinions, beliefs and evidence. It is important to have an innate ‘feel’ for both knowledge of wants (needs and desires) and of possibilities (technology effects and constraints) and be comfortable seeking knowledge from people who know a lot more than you do about a specific subject.
  4. Experimental Imagination – The creative ability to come up with unique, new and compelling concepts through mental recombination of what is known and what can be plausibly speculated. Experimental imagination is more than just creativity. It is imaginative in the sense that it uses right brain creative conceptualization to come up with unexpected combinations, to connect ambiguous dots, and to see real patterns even when they are faint. It is experimental in the sense that it uses left brain mental testing and analysis to see if the new combinations are plausible and relevant.
  5. Mental Duality – This skill embodies both the ability to keep the whole and the parts in mind at once and to accommodate conflicting information. To understand the whole and the parts, you need to be able to move, at will, up and down knowledge levels from concrete and specific to abstract and general. You also need the ability to connect across levels and to find the ‘right’ level for the understanding and insight that is needed at the moment. Conflicting information is inevitable. The cognitive dissonance it creates can, if harnessed correctly, can result in deep insights.
  6. Qualitative Synthesis – The ability to synthesize disparate, incomplete and uncertain knowledge in a meaningful way to create models of the complex systems that determine adoption. The ability to ntegrate often incomplete and ambiguous quantitative data and qualitative understanding in a way that reveals influences, determines cause and effect and projects the dynamics of the future. Dealing with our own mental limits of understanding complexity requires humbleness, persistence and rigor.
  7. Clarifying Storytelling – The ability to craft a compelling narrative and convey both the rational and the emotional aspects of a plausible future world in which the innovation exists. The skill involves communicating experiences and connecting with the listener on an emotional level, distilling the essence into a clear message that accurately portrays the dynamic future and reveals just the right amount of the complexity and uncertainty involved.
  8. Options Decision Making – The ability to make decisions in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty. To recognize the probabilistic and complex nature of unfolding actions and accommodate this complexity by keeping future options open. Decisions with imperfect information are the norm and qualitative judgment is required. An options mindset means that the decisions are not about evaluating the ‘goodness’ of the concept, but rather about how much more effort should be expended focusing and shaping the concept.
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