What Terms Capture the Spirit of an Innovator?
How do you rate yourself as an innovator?
Even more interesting, what is the one word that describes you?
I’ve asked this question of myself. The short answer is I’m a contradiction.
I’m an immigrant. The child of a single parent growing up in not the best neighborhoods or circumstances. Yet I was oblivious to the challenges inherent in those formative details. I ignored “you can’t.”
I diagnosed myself with “Corporate ADD.” I joke about the terminology, but here’s the point — I did all the status quo tasks well. But I wasn’t content to stop there. I always want to push boundaries. Reach for the “impossible.” Work outside of the system and norms.
My corporate career spans more than 20 years, and despite the starting point and lack of contentedness with the frameworks of business, it’s been successful.
It’s not just me. I have looked around and seen people like me. And they’re the ones who I’ve seen making things happen. It prompted me to ask why.
The DNA of an Innovator
When I left the corporate world, it was to explore what makes big companies innovative. At first I thought it was all about the best processes, locations, and more to help them build an infrastructure (presumably) for success. But then I realized…even with the best processes and infrastructure, sustainable innovation and cultures are only possible with special leaders. Authentic leaders with what I call the DNA of an Innovator.
It begins with embracing conflict. Not long ago, I was talking with Lara Hodgson. She’s a technology entrepreneur with an aerospace engineering degree from Georgia Tech. We talked about the importance of friction to create innovation….the way friction creates flight for airplanes. Airplanes are tons of steel, filled with people and bags — and it’s friction that gets that huge, heavy thing into the air. That friction is also the essence of innovation. It’s the fuel that activates success.
When I was at GE, I remember Beth Comstock (my true north when it comes to innovation) saying you know you are on the right path when it is the path that produces a gut-wrenching, puke-worthy feeling. That is embracing conflict.
That willingness to embrace the discomfort of conflict and friction leads us to confusion tolerance. People with an innovator’s DNA are comfortable being uncomfortable. The process isn’t easy. The answers aren’t simple. Confusion tolerance is about using both sides of your brain — the creative and analytical sides. It’s also about allowing the uncomfortable part to come into your consideration to expand the innovation and thinking. It’s what creates the whole-brain processing.
Ford Fry is the perfect example of an innovator who is confusion tolerant. He pulls together the creatives, the operators, all the necessary voices. And he pivots back and forth. That sparks healthy conflict and creativity.
Being comfortable with confusion and using both sides your brain is great, but it’s not enough. Successful innovators know they are required to know their shit. They know that innovation isn’t about them. It’s about their company and customers. It’s about knowing what your company does. Your P&L. Your markets and investors. The motivations of your key stakeholders…. All of these answers are the effective parts of your innovation process because it helps you understand how to drive change. Having good business sense is necessary to drive change and the people who will create it.
Which is one way of saying the next key trait. Innovators are able to inspire. This may be one of the easiest qualities to spot. In Atlanta, we see it in people like Darren Eales, who had a vision for Atlanta United FC. Long before the first season, he had a big vision and a vision for all the details within it, from the kits, the style of play, the stories they’d tell, and more. The stories are where so much of the inspiration is found. Just ask people like Marc Gorlin, who has used natural storytelling ability (and a degree in journalism) to inspire people around the vision for the companies he builds.
And last, the connective thread between all these other skills and talents is authenticity. That is the common thread among all of these innovators. Kat Cole may have said it best, “Sometimes I feel like I belong everywhere…sometimes, I feel that I belong nowhere. I am the hippie in the corporate office.”
That is a statement of vulnerability and confidence at the same time. It’s that balance of fear, confidence, skills, and vision that comprises the X-Factor for innovators.
So, back to you. Think again about the question. How do you rate yourself as an innovator? Is it in your DNA? Consider the details:
● What is your confusion tolerance, really?
● Are you comfortable with being uncomfortable?
● How well do you know all the most important parts of your business?
● Can you inspire others and are you inspired by others?
● Are you your authentic self and do you embrace it?
I’m a contradiction. And that’s what’s given shape to my path as an innovator. What’s shaping yours?