What are the characteristics of an Innovator?

Jorge Barba points to this “six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews” by Professors Jeff Dyer of Brigham Young University and Hal Gregersen of Insead which became a HBR article and a book with their association with Clayton Christensen.

The challenge is not just knowing about them, but how to go about developing them. As a bonus, I have added a sixth!




Most successful innovators tend to be very good at seeing connections between seemingly disparate ideas.


The ability to ask “what if”, “why”, and “why not” questions that challenge the status quo and open up the bigger picture.


Attention to details, most notably in other people’s behavior.


Always try new things by constantly exploring new worlds.


Ability to talk and learn from people they have nothing in common with.

Learning Associating

The associating has to come from  various fields, the “latticework of models” that are needed for innovation. This idea comes from Charlie Munger, the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

For example, it is connecting design, business, arithmetic, accounting, psychology and social sciences and other disciplines to creating social change. Having all of these models in our head helps us to start associating and finding commonality that is normally not possible.

From the HBR article:

Entrepreneur Frans Johansson described this phenomenon as the “Medici effect,” referring to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together people from a wide range of disciplines—sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects. As these individuals connected, new ideas blossomed at the intersections of their respective fields, thereby spawning the Renaissance, one of the most inventive eras in history.

Associating is more than that though. It is using ideas and connections from unconnected fields to make things better. For example, how this team of doctors learnt from Formula 1 that is saving lives.

Both keen sports fans, they tuned in to an F1 race. As one car pulled in for a pit stop, both doctors’ jaws dropped as they were struck by the same thought: here was a 20-member crew that could change a car’s tyres, fill it with fuel, clean the air intakes and send it roaring off –in seven seconds flat. They were coordinated, disciplined and rehearsed. Elliott turned to Goldman: “Why can’t we do it like this?”

As the authors suggest:

Likewise, Steve Jobs is able to generate idea after idea because he has spent a lifetime exploring new and unrelated things—the art of calligraphy, meditation practices in an Indian ashram, the fine details of a Mercedes-Benz.

Which questions?

“The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right  question,” – Drucker

In my experience, questioning is possibly the best way to change people’s perspective and approach. It is a hard skill to master but quite impactful.

Like the “5 most important questions” that Drucker asks.

5 most important qs

  1. What is your mission?

  2. Who is the customer?

  3. What does the customer value?

  4. What are our results?

  5. What is the plan?

Or the “5 questions every company should ask” like “The Purpose question” or “The abandonment question“. They generally lead you to something insightful and profound.

Observing People

“Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.” — W. I. B. Beveridge in The Art of Scientific Investigation

Innovation starts with people but human behaviour is one of the hardest things to understand. People don’t always do what they say. They cannot imagine whether a future product is useful and they cannot predict what can be useful for them. As innovators, we would have our biases, customers will have their own biases. So how do we, the innovators, solve this. For that, you need to observe people in their context. Techniques like problem interviews, rapid ethnography, card sorting and other design tools are very useful to do that.  I will write more about that soon.

From the HBR article:

Observers try all sorts of techniques to see the world in a

different light. Akio Toyoda regularly practices Toyota‟s philosophy of genchi genbutsu—“going to the spot and seeing for yourself.” Frequent direct observation is baked into the Toyota culture.

So what happens when we observe them? How do we know what they value and their priorities? One of the best frameworks I found for that is the job-to-be-done framework.

A job to be done (JTBD) is a revolutionary concept that guides you toward innovation and helps you move beyond the norm of only improving current solutions. A JTBD is not a product, service, or a specific solution; it’s the higher purpose for which customers buy products, services, and solutions.

Clayton Christensen explains “understanding the job” in this video.

The Why & How of experiments?

“We’ve tried to create tools to reduce the cost of doing experiments so that we can do more of them. If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce.”

That quote is from Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon.com. He nails it. The reason it is hard to do is because we are humans, says Dan Ariely.

If we are ready to work through our biases, how do we actually do better experiments? That is the biggest challenge.  Ash Maurya says that “Running experiments is “the” key activity in a Lean Startup. 

But running effective experiments is actually quite hard.” He provides a good way to think about experiments in this youtube video.



It is not part of the article or the book, but I would say understanding your assumptions and testing them are a key part of innovation. Steve Blank is one of the pioneers in that and you can learn more from the lean start up.


“truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005)

“the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

We all want to believe. We want to go ahead because of our passion, our experience, our education or in a lot of cases our intuition. However, we know from the work of people like Kahneman that our intuition, what he calls System 1, is not always useful. It has its own biases.

If you are thinking about your organisation, this is about the environment and markets, about customers, about what is the right problem to solve . It helps you think about the assumptions behind the change you want to create, your mission. It includes what capabilities you think are important. What Drucker calls the “Theory of the Business”. Something to be constantly tested.

The challenge of working with assumptions is the same for a new startup, a new product or a new program. The biggest challenge is changing our mental model.

As Drucker said many years back,

The danger is acting on what you believe satisfies the customer. You will inevitably make wrong assumptions. Leadership should not even try to guess at the answers; it should always go to customers in a systematic quest for those answers.

The Business Model Canvas from Osterwalder is the best way to capture those assumptions and test them.



My friend, Reuben Abraham, who is the best networker in the world I know of, is a great example of the power of networking. I can’t say I am good at this right now but there is no denying that my limited experience tells me learning from other people is not only useful but quite insightful.

Why do innovators do this?

From the HBR article:

Put a Ding in the Universe

Why do innovators question, observe, experiment, and network more than typical executives? As we examined what motivates them, we discovered two common themes: (1) They actively desire to change the status quo, and (2) they regularly take risks to make that change happen. Throughout our research, we were struck by the consistency of language that innovators use to describe their motives. Jeff Bezos wants to “make history,” Steve Jobs to “put a ding in the universe,” Skype cofounder Niklas Zennström to “be disruptive, but in the cause of making the world a better place.” These innovators steer entirely clear of a common cognitive bias called the status quo bias—the tendency to prefer an existing state of affairs to alternative ones.

Why do I do what I do?



To help create impact in the social sector.

This is the ultimate goal and the reason for what I am doing. I want to be part of the narrative of creating social change that has a high impact in terms of change and scale. This is in terms of people in social enterprises, or not for profits creating new programs or governments trying to figure out how and where to focus their efforts on.