How do you spot an innovator? Which characteristics should you look for in a business environment where almost nothing ever slows down?
One certainty is that a culture of innovation allows companies to surf the massive waves of change currently rippling through technology, society, and commerce. If you don’t already have one, the road to reshaping culture is a tall order under any conditions, but especially for companies that have traditionally favored predictability over risk-taking.
Each time we’ve succeeded in working through management puzzles that others simply couldn’t, I’ve looked deeply into the factors that made it possible. That has been central to identifying which traits I look for in an innovator, specifically:
There’s no better way to say it: I look for people who give a damn. As part of a two-part series on our core values, I touched on what it has meant for our team to “focus on learning, outcomes, and impact.” The end is what people see, but the means of getting there are more important. We look for people who can share their knowledge freely, embody integrity, and enter into every endeavor with a servant’s heart. I look for individuals with a history of making a measurable impact on the organization. They look beyond narrow problem definitions to address root causes and wider implications.
Like a pre-seed investor, I put my faith in people with grit. There is an inherent level of toughness required to know you can beat the odds despite the challenges being thrown your way. These individuals share the rare combination of independence and a collaborative spirit. They demonstrate a “roll up your sleeves” attitude and don’t wait for others to solve problems for them. They make their own luck through resourcefulness, calm in navigating ambiguity, and the confidence to unlearn what doesn’t work anymore. They have a commitment to test, experiment, and rigorously follow the truth, wherever it leads.
A Love of Problems
These individuals have learned how to fall in love with the problem. Once they do, they become intrepid in searching for answers. They are not afraid to sail off into unknown territory in the service of continuous improvement. They have made the mental shift from treating problems like sinkholes, to embracing them as fuel for personal growth. Open to feedback and adventurous, these innovators are known for tackling the hardest parts first.
A Mastery of Communication
They prove that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t fully grasp it. They are able to speak inclusively and with precision on the topic at hand. No jargon. No BS. They listen actively and over communicate to establish a common ground. In respect for their team members, they are succinct. When there is a chance of a misconnect, they are not afraid to speak up and clear the air. If necessary they ask for help well in advance of the deadline, and they act strategically in prioritizing the needs of the business.
No one can do it alone. The Lean Startup Co. is centered on a belief in our shared humanity, and we always assume good intentions. Innovators are in touch with the future because they remain empathic and recognize the influence of their own emotions in decision-making. They never come to the table with a problem until they have done some of their own thinking first. They question their assumptions before they react. They don’t take things personally and quarantine defensive ideation. They steer well away from irresponsible optimism and “Negative Nancy” pessimism. They demonstrate how much they value their peers by practicing radical candor knowing the message is truthful, helpful, and kind.
If I had to sum it all up into a single trait, it would be the beginner’s mind – we stay hungry for answers and full of questions. Our curiosity begins with each individual customer and extends to tackling the biggest problems for the wider community. Speaking to Business Coaching Magazine last fall, I described the team we’ve assembled as a group of outstanding individuals who are “mentally tough, professionally adaptable, eager to navigate ambiguity, have a bias for action, and love to search for both problems and answers.” That is why they aren’t afraid to steer directly into the unknown.
The fact is nobody’s perfect. We are all human and miss the mark sometimes, but our team embodies this collection of characteristics. Each day they recommit to being the best at what they do. After all, the build-measure-learn loop applies to individuals as well as organizations. With each trip around, the loop is meant to become a spiral of continuous improvement. Whether we are ready or not change is accelerating, and yesterday’s best may be out of date already. That’s what keeps this work exciting for me and my team as we seek out the surprises already cresting on the next wave.