The Mind Of An Innovator: Five Essential Skills For Innovation

Naveen Keshava

A year and a half ago, a recent campus recruit, Mayank, came to me with a request: He wanted to move out of his current office and instead work at our company’s head office, which also happens to be where most of our company’s innovation happens. “I am an innovator,” he explained, “and I need to talk about my ideas with experts. My success is directly proportional to the quality of the interactions I have with these experts.”

While employees had reached out to me in the past to request role or team changes, this was the first time innovation had been cited as the incentive. I suggested that Mayank spend more time learning and contributing to his current team before making a change. To address his desire for greater innovation, I also suggested that he consider working in parallel with teams at the head office.

Four months later, Mayank had filed three patents, two of which directly supported his existing team. As time passed, his reputation as an innovator only grew, and he earned many awards. By the time he finally joined a new team, he had filed six patents. Today, with only two years of corporate experience, Mayank’s patent count is in double digits.

This experience made me wonder: What makes an innovator different? With innovation being the cornerstone of success in this digital era, why don’t we see more Mayanks? Is there a set of behaviors or skills that can be developed to help someone become an innovator?

A good amount of research has been done on this topic, but one skill that seems to correlate directly with innovation is the ability to connect things.

Innovators are experts at connecting

The ability to connect two or more unrelated ideas, or associating, is the best predictor of innovation. Associating is the ability to bring unrelated elements together to transform them into something better.

Think of connecting dots on a piece of paper. The greater the number of dots, the more lines you can draw connecting them. More association leads to more innovation.

The more diverse our experience and knowledge, the more connections our brain makes. Fresh input creates more associations, which lead to creative ideas. That is the reason innovators spend so much time questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

The best predictor of associating skill is how often an individual observes, asks questions, networks, and experiments. The best innovators use these skills often and become more successful the more they understand, sort, and categorize information. Most innovators don’t actually invent new things, but rather recombine ideas.

Questioning: Innovators are problem creators

Many people think that innovators are great at solving problems. That is true, but innovators also create problems by questioning the status quo.

For this reason, innovators are sometimes unpopular among their peers. They may be perceived as being against existing systems. As an HR business partner, when I see a leader who is willing to question the system—even if they helped create it—I know innovation is around the corner.

For most people, questioning the status quo is difficult. Opposing alternatives creates a natural cognitive dissonance as uncertainty generates stress on the brain. In contrast, innovators are comfortable with opposing thoughts and ideas and feel less frustrated by choosing one idea over the other. Furthermore, innovators can fuse opposing ideas to conceive of alternatives that often offer better solutions.

An awareness of cognitive dissonance, in which the mind seeks clarity over confusion, is the first step towards increasing your questioning skills. The rest is simple: Ask courageous questions, consciously and often. This puts constraints on your thoughts and challenges the status quo.

Observing: Innovators are the masters of trends and behaviors

Observation is a habit for innovators, and they indulge in it intentionally and sometimes obsessively. They are the masters of trends and behaviors.

When oil prices spiked in 2003, many people became more environmentally conscious. Elon Musk’s observation of this trend made him ask, “Can there be an equal alternative to petrol/diesel vehicles?”

Just before the iPod was introduced, Napster had created a technology that let users share and swap downloaded MP3 files through a file-sharing service. During this time, Steve Jobs looked through the trend to offer a music player that enabled users to legally buy the music they wanted.

Innovators are both problem-solvers and visionaries: As visionaries, they can zoom out to understand a macro trend; as problem solvers, they zoom in to explore the details of an idea.

A great way to learn observational skills is to ask yourself, “What is different from what I expected?” Ask this question intentionally, frequently, and sometimes obsessively.

Networking and experimenting: Failure is not an option, but a mandate

Innovative ideas usually happen through the collision of smaller hunches. Innovators recognize this and devote their time and energy testing their ideas through diverse networks, which ideally include people who are radically different from themselves.

Innovators use these networks, which encourage them to question the status quo, to test their ideas and spot trends. They love ideas and often act as idea curators.

Innovators experiment continuously, even after they’ve established a business. Jeff Bezos’s Kindle experiment created a market for itself. Steve Jobs did not stop experimenting after the success of the iPod; he moved on to the iPhone.

Fundamental differences

It is important to understand what makes innovators like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk stand out from the crowd. Innovators continuously change the status quo and are not afraid to take risks and create and influence change.

Jeff Bezos said, “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.” Elon Musk’s “single best piece of advice was to constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” And Steve Jobs “wanted to put a ding in the universe.”

Are you an innovator?

For more on this topic, see How Human And Machine Intelligence Powers The Intelligent Enterprise.


Naveen Keshava

About Naveen Keshava

Naveen Keshava is presently HR Business Partner for the HCM line of business at SAP. He is highly knowledgeable in the areas of HR and People Management with expertise in Organizational Design and Change Management, Coaching, Recruiting, Talent Management, Communications, and Diversity.