Innovation: Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers, and Spies

Stephen DeAngelis

June 21, 2013

The great thing about innovators is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Some pundits believe great innovators share certain traits or habits, but beyond that, trying to describe what makes a great innovator is nearly impossible. In fact, most creativity gurus don’t believe in the “lone genius” innovator. “The truth is,” writes Rob Cross, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, Andrew Hargadon, a professor in the Graduate School of Management at the University of California, Davis, Salvatore Parise, an assistant professor in the Technology, Operations, and Information Management division at Babson College, and Robert J. Thomas, executive director of Accenture’s Institute for High Performance Business, “most innovations are created through networks — groups of people working in concert.” [“Together We Innovate,” Wall Street Journal, 19 June 2013] Group settings involve a number of different types of personalities and approaches.

Having said that, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), believes that true innovators share “five rarely discussed habits.” He agrees with creativity coaches that anyone can come up with good ideas; however, he also believes that “most of us tend to believe we are more creative than we actually are.” [“If You Have These Five Habits You Are Probably an Innovator,” Psychology Today, 23 April 2013] He explains:

“On one hand, we all have the potential to do innovative things. On the other, some people are much more likely to innovate than others – and this depends more on their personality, attitudes and values than the educational, corporate, or even cultural policies or norms.”

The five habits that Chamorro-Premuzic believes differentiates innovators from others are:

1) You are an evening rather than a morning type
2) You can multi-task
3) You often have weird and embarrassing thoughts
4) When you work on something you enjoy, you completely lose track of time and immerse yourself in the task
5) You dislike rules, norms and the status-quo

In his article, he explains why each of those habits can make a person more innovative. He also invites readers to take part in study he is conducting and he promises to give you instant feedback on “your potential for innovation.” A word of caution — if you find yourself skulking around the city at night having weird and embarrassing thoughts and breaking the rules, the police might not think you’re being innovative!

Roger von Oech claims that innovation teams must embrace four roles: explorer, artist, judge, and warrior. [“The 4 Roles of Creativity: Explorer, Artist, Judge, Warrior,” 99u, 29 May 2013] As you will see from the descriptions below, it is almost impossible to find all of these traits in a single individual. Working together, however, these four personality types can be quite innovative.

Explorer

“The Explorer’s job is to collect the raw material for creativity. He is constantly asking questions, talking to different people, and processing as many inputs as possible.”

Commenting on a Booz & Company study about corporate R&D spending, Gijs van Wulfen concludes that it is critical for companies to have explorers. The Booz & Company calls them “Need Seekers,” because they find out what customers really need. Van Wulfen writes, “Need seeking is essential, because a good innovation is a simple solution to a relevant customer need.” [“The best innovators are need seekers,” LinkedIn, 12 November 2013]

Artist

“The Artist takes the raw material from the Explorer and combines it in new and interesting ways. He’s playful and imaginative with no concerns about judging the quality of what he’s creating.”

When it comes to innovation, the artists that are most often involved are designers. To give you a sense of how important designers are in the innovation process, read a post I wrote back in 2007 entitled The Medici Effect and New Design. The only quibble I have with von Oech about the description of artists is that designers ARE concerned about the quality of what they create. Good designers create objects that are both beautiful and functional. Steve Jobs once said, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Judge

“The Judge takes the Artist’s ideas and determines if they’re practical. He thinks critically and realistically about what can actually be done.”

Judges are often also referred to as “Gatekeepers.” Gatekeepers are important because they are able to kill bad ideas before bad ideas kill the company. Cross, Hargadon, Parise, and Thomas note, “Very often, these gatekeepers hold their esteemed position for good reason — they have technical expertise or other skills that have served the company well.” But they caution that not all gatekeepers are good gatekeepers. “They may not be the best judges of new ideas, and their expertise in one area may in fact blind them to innovations in other areas.”

Warrior

“The Warrior takes an idea the Judge has determined worthy and tenaciously follows it to completion. The Warrior’s job is to overcome resistance, be courageous, and ship the idea.”

Warriors are often referred to as innovation champions. For more on that subject, read my post entitled Making Everyone an Innovation Champion. As I wrote in that post, “Supporting innovation champions with more than words and back slaps is important. ‘In order for innovation to flourish in your organization,’ writes Chuck Ferry, ‘your innovation champions must be supported through properly structured responsibilities, goals and resources. Otherwise, they will leave to pursue other opportunities, taking their energy and ideas with them.’ [“Cultivating Innovation Champions,” Innovation Management.se, 30 January 2013]

Mike Lehr sees a much simpler view of personality types associated with innovation. “In the development of ideas,” he writes, “we generally see two types of people: creators and pruners. While people often display both types, usually one is dominant.” [“Creators vs. Pruners: Personality Typing,” Influencing and Problem Solving, 28 January 2013] He continues:

“Creators birth ideas or develop existing ones further by adding onto them. Pruners take ideas and modify them to fit a situation. Whereas ideation tends to be a growing process with creators (and potentially infinite), it tends to be a cutting back one with pruners (and thus finite). In the extreme, creators never complete ideas because of constantly ‘perfecting’ them while pruners will reduce ideas until they’re nothing or provide no value.”

Lehr may be a bit too harsh in his description of pruners. They are not exactly gatekeepers, but they do serve a reality-check function. A good gardener doesn’t prune his trees in order to kill them, but to make them flourish. You could probably apply the Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule) when defining these two personality types. Creators come up with 100 percent of the ideas, but only 20 percent of them are any good. It’s the job of pruners to find that 20 percent. Lehr recognizes that any number of labels can be applied to these personality types. He explains:

“Business contains many examples formalizing these functions. We have ‘writers’ and ‘editors.’ The first creates, the second prunes. Manufacturers create products and retailers select (prune) what they will offer. In media, we have content creators such as newspapers, movie production companies, television producers, etc. and content aggregators such as search engines, cable companies, booksellers, movie renters, etc. who choose (prune) the content they will offer.”

Lehr’s framework certainly provides food for thought, but I believe that van Oech’s framework offers more insight into the personality types needed to foster innovation. Van Oech’s four creativity types can be expanded upon — for example, some creativity gurus believe you need to add a “Joker” or “Fool” to the mix. Like a good comedian, the joker sees absurdities in what most of us see as normal. Niels Bohr once remarked, “We all know your idea is crazy. The question is, whether it is crazy enough?” Who knows, some consultant is likely to come up with reasons why every innovation team also needs a tinker, a tailor, a soldier, and a spy.