Leading Innovators: Characteristics and Strategies

Leading Innovators Are Forward-Looking and Open to Future Trends

Leading innovators are forward-looking and open to future trends. Look for them to write about emerging trends and attend “the future of…” conferences.

Identifying innovation leaders isn’t easy. They often don’t perform well in traditional interviews and are prone to egotism and defensiveness. But if you’re willing to work around their quirks, you can spot the best of them.

1. They have a strong sense of self

The most effective innovation leaders possess a powerful internal motivation that allows them to persist, even when they don’t get immediate results. It’s similar to the endurance an Olympic athlete has, and it helps them overcome barriers that others might consider insurmountable. It’s also what makes innovators so good at creating something new, whether that’s a product, service or business.

In addition, they’re typically highly perceptive and can identify a problem in places that others might miss. They also have an intuitive sense of how to create a solution, often using techniques like the “five whys” to get to the root of a matter and address it in a creative way.

In Quirky, NYU Stern professor Melissa Schilling describes eight serial breakthrough innovators—people like Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs—and finds that they share many of the same characteristics. She points to their outsider status in the fields they revolutionized, their strong sense of self-efficacy and their idealistic belief that they could change the world.

2. They are open to feedback

While many companies are still stuck in old management models that encourage destructive feedback, forward-thinking businesses realize that meaningful feedback is good for everyone. In fact, innovation leaders often provide positive feedback on their teams’ ideas and encourage the generation of new concepts by launching idea challenges.

This approach allows shy innovators to feel comfortable voicing their ideas and helps to increase the pool of innovation concepts. It also helps to break down barriers that may exist within a hierarchical structure and can help to facilitate productive debate that could ultimately lead to better innovations. Examples of innovative leadership that is open to feedback include Larry Page (Google CEO), Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) and Elon Musk (co-founder of Paypal and founder of electric car company Tesla and space technology company SpaceX). This type of open innovation leadership can foster a sense of collaboration that inspires creative insights to be generated from various people’s experiences and knowledge.

3. They are able to facilitate productive conflict

When addressed in a healthy and constructive manner, conflict can be a powerful catalyst for growth and innovation. It also strengthens relationships and fosters a greater understanding of each other’s perspectives, which leads to better decision-making and problem-solving.

Productive conflict is different from destructive conflicts that involve personal attacks, blaming and manipulation. These types of conflicts can stifle open communication and hinder the generation of new ideas.

Innovation leaders prioritize learning from every situation and encourage others to do the same. They ask questions and listen attentively to all viewpoints. They do not assume they know the answer and are able to identify potential obstacles in their path before they can even begin to formulate solutions.

The inability to facilitate productive conflict can have long-term negative implications for an organization. These problems include legal costs, low employee morale and productivity, and loss of revenue and customer retention. The ability to manage and foster a culture of productive conflict is vital to ensuring your company stays competitive in the business landscape.

4. They are able to create a culture of innovation

Innovation is key to a competitive advantage, and it’s important for companies to create a culture that fosters innovation. Leaders can set the tone for a company’s innovation culture by making it a top priority in their organizations. They can also provide support for employees in their efforts to innovate by establishing reward systems and providing other incentives.

Innovators also believe that people from different backgrounds and perspectives can produce creative insights by working together. They encourage collaborative arguments and use tools like crowdsourcing to stimulate creativity and innovation. They also promote a culture of learning through experimentation, feedback, and reflection. They lead with questions instead of answers, and they are open to the possibility that their ideas may not work.

They communicate a clear purpose and goals for the organization, and they encourage employees to think creatively in workplace situations. They also have a positive outlook on failure and understand that sometimes experiments fail, but can be given new life, as was the case for 3M’s Post-Its, which were discovered while searching for stronger adhesives.

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