Breakthrough innovation is the dream of every entrepreneur, but it’s still a scarce commodity. Selecting and nurturing people who are likely to help you in this regard is an even more elusive capability, and one that every angel investor, like myself, wishes he could get a lock on. In fact, every manager and business owner needs this skill just to survive with today’s pace of change.
We all wish we were the next Steve Jobs, or Elon Musk, or Thomas Edison. If we’re not, then at least we would like to recognize them when they come through the door, or better yet, create a few like them in our own organization. I wish I understood what makes some people so spectacularly innovative, producing triumph after triumph, while the rest of us merely get by.
I’ve seen a lot of speculation on this challenge over the years, but I was recently impressed with the insights in a new book, “Quirky,” by Melissa A. Schilling. From her position as professor at NYU Stern, and recognition as one of the world’s leading experts on innovation, she takes a deep dive into the lives and foibles of eight well-known innovators, including the ones mentioned.
One of her encouraging conclusions is that we all have potential in this regard, which can be brought out naturally by life circumstances and special circumstances, or nurtured by the people and culture around us. I’ll paraphrase her key recommendations for capitalizing on this potential, for use on yourself and members of your team:
- Incent people to challenge norms and accepted constraints. Everyone wants to fit in, but most of us have felt a sense of being an outsider, which needs to be nurtured rather than crushed. Elon Musk, for example, had no experience or training as a rocket scientist when he came up with the idea of reusing rockets, and the innovative idea for SpaceX.
- Give people time alone to ponder ideas without judgment. When you are looking for breakthroughs, you need time to think outside the box without fear of consequences. The payoff value of a person working alone on side projects, tapping into intrinsic motivation, has been the source of several of Google’s most famous products, including Gmail.
- Reinforce people’s belief in their ability to succeed. One of the most powerful ways to increase creativity, at both the individual and organizational level, is to encourage people to take risks by lowering the price of failure, and even celebrating bold-but-intelligent failures. Also, creating opportunities for early wins is extremely valuable for this process.
- Inspire ambitions by setting grand goals and purpose. Driving business goals that have a social component that people can embrace as improving quality of life provides intrinsic motivation to increase creativity and effort in their activities. Steve Jobs was obsessed with revolutionizing personal expression, more than making a computer.
- Tap into people’s natural interests and favorite activities. In business, this is called finding the flow. It requires both self-awareness on what you like to do, and a willingness on the part of your manager to personalize work assignments. Thomas Edison loved to solve problems, so he persevered, despite 10,000 filament material tests that didn’t work.
- Increase focus on technological and intellectual resources. With today’s pervasive access to the Internet, with powerful search tools from Google, WolframAlpha, and many others, the Library of Congress is at everyone’s fingertips. They just need the inspiration, time, and training to capitalize on these tools, and the new devices that arrive every day.
Schilling and I do agree that you have to start with people who possess substantial intellect, so the conventional indicators of skill and accomplishments cannot be ignored. In addition, it’s important to find partners and team members with a high need for achievement, a passionate idealism, and faith in their ability to overcome obstacles, often seen as a level of quirkiness.
We are talking here about finding and nurturing people who can literally help you change the world, because that’s what breakthrough innovation is all about. If your business and personal goals don’t measure up to that standard today, maybe your first focus should be on rethinking your own objectives. The bar for staying competitive in business keeps going up.