In 2010, IBM interviewed over 1,500 CEOs and leaders, and they overwhelmingly “selected creativity as the most important leadership attribute.” Why? Because “creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches, and … consider previously unheard-of ways to drastically change the enterprise for the better, setting the stage for innovation that helps them engage more effectively with today’s customers, partners and employees.”
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote recently that the US economy needed more jobs – “more Steve Jobs.” Friedman argued that “without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.” In another recent piece, Friedman argued that if anything today, young people need to innovate their own career, not just look for a job: “my generation had it easy. We got to “find” a job. But, more than ever, our kids will have to “invent” a job.”
In 2006, on the education front, famed expert Sir Ken Robinson called for nothing less than a “revolution” in education and to teach creativity in schools in the same way we teach literacy. He continues to call for these changes.
In late 2013, President Obama re-invigorated his call for greater innovation, joining the campaign by CODE.org to promote technical education and learning computer language, saying in his video statement, “don’t just buy a new video game, make one … don’t just download the latest app, help design it …”.
What does it really mean to think like an innovator? What exactly are the innovator’s skills, and do we really need to learn them?
First, let’s clarify that we are talking about innovators, not solely inventors. The difference may seem subtle yet is massive. Steve Jobs was an innovator, not the inventor. He brought about change. He hired and worked with inventors, but Jobs was the innovator.
If you look at just about any good innovator, you find they generally have these seven significant abilities:
- Creative AND Practical: Comes up with good ideas that are both creative and surprisingly practical, and thus has an entrepreneurial mindset;
- Focused: Stays focused on getting to a successful, positive result that works;
- Emotionally Attuned: Deeply understands people and their needs (often better than the people themselves) and thus comes up with new ways to meet those needs;
- Collaborative: Is not at all a lone wolf or lone genius, and in fact is surprisingly collaborative, shares ideas and builds teams;
- Failure is Feedback: Readily and happily looks at initial failure as mere feedback and readily corrects course accordingly;
- Positive and Resilient: Stays surprisingly positive, even when all looks overwhelming or gloomy;
- Finishes: Ultimately persists to produce a final product that is ‘shipped’ – either brought to market, sold, or implemented successfully.
Do we need more people with these skills? It should be obvious that just about every job and career today cries out for more people with these talents.
At the beginning of this year, in Canada, the Toronto Star designated 2014 the “Year of the Idea.” The reason? In its editorial, the Star described the landscape of realities, from mind-numbing traffic to crumbling infrastructure to growing inequality, and said the “cure is a fresh injection of inspiration, and that comes through bold ideas and shrewd innovation.” With the initiative, the Star is aiming to “canvass everyone … in search of fresh vision for this city and practical ways to mend its tattered urban fabric.”
Yet the biggest surprise of all is that most of the skills of a good innovator are still not clearly understood let alone taught formally anywhere. How do we expect all this innovation to happen if we don’t teach people the skills they need to successfully innovate? There isn’t another area of life or business where we expect people to perform a task but don’t provide them with the skills and training to do so. In this case, the task is innovating – and doing so on a grand scale never encountered before in history.