In a previous post, I explored how leaders create an environment of innovation by allowing people to think differently and expecting innovation from everyone. But what makes a successful innovator?

I believe that there are five traits or behaviours that are needed to be successful in innovation. To date, I have not seen these traits or competencies in many corporations’ selection or promotion procedures. Actually, I have not seen them in any recruitment process, yet many organisations want their culture and their people to be innovative.

Trait 1: Curious

Curious explorers

Successful innovators must be curious. They are interested in the new and different. They do not try to work out how to use what they find, but just store it in their memory banks.

They regularly test, re-test, experiment, create prototypes; key ingredients to finding the best solution. They know that the first idea is unlikely to be the best one, or the final version.

Do we all have to be curious? I don’t believe we do, but we must allow people to ask questions without getting offended by what can appear to be questioning of our competency.

Exploring must happen in an organisation. If you only exploit the resources you have, then one day there will be nothing left. Think rainforests…

Trait 2: Passionately Dissatisfied

Passion drives the desire for improvement

If there is no dissatisfaction, there is no incentive to find a better way. A successful innovator will not be satisfied with the current position. They want their team, department or organisation to be the best it can be, and are not satisfied until they have achieved that.

They could be viewed as trying or pessimistic, but they are anything but. They have a passion and drive to be the best, knowing that they will not get there by standing still. They tend to be pretty harsh markers of themselves and others; they rarely give 10 out of 10!

People with this competency can be difficult to work with at times, because they are hard to please. However, it is never meant personally; passion and drive takes over and sensibilities are forgotten in their keenness to find the “answer”.

Trait 3: Active Listener

Hearing is key…

To improve an idea, collaboration is essential. It is highly unlikely that there will be brilliant ideas without collaboration. Other views, feedback and differing opinions, are vital in identifying improvements that produce the success that innovators need and crave.

Innovators do more than just hear what others say, they listen to what they hear. They can distill the noise into what improves and adds, and what should be ignored. Hearing is a passive task, whereas listening is an activity that is practiced.

Hearing is sucking all the noise in, while listening is about distilling the noise to find the valuable insights. Some are naturally much better at listening than others, however listening is a skill that can be developed over time and with practice. Successful innovators are not just a good hearers, they are active listeners.

Trait 4: Great Timing

It’s great timing, not luck

Bonaparte was reported as saying, “I don’t want good generals, I want lucky generals.” Successful innovators have the uncanny knack of having great timing. They have the intuitive ability to know when to push ideas because they will survive, and when to hold ideas back because the time is not right.

Successful innovators understand when divergence is needed, when they need to seek more options and possibilities to enable the ideas to improve. They know when convergence is necessary, when the options need to be shut down so that a decision can be reached.

It is not luck, but comes through clearly understanding the problem that is trying to be solved, the environment that it will enter into and the beneficiaries of the resultant solution.

Trait 5: Thick-Skinned

Thick skins are needed for protection

Innovators have to fight the nay-sayers. They “rock the boat” and not everyone likes the adrenalin rides! Once they have the right course, they must have the strength to stick to it.

Change is not universally loved; as humans, we like the familiar, and often fight the unexpected and unknown. This is when it all gets emotional and potentially personal.

Emotions get in the way of rational thought, innovators are often blamed for the problems. As hard as it may be, innovation is about bringing change to produce a better situation. With change, people have to adapt and they will not always like it. The successful innovator can stay the course and bring about the change that is needed.

In summary, if organisations want to develop an innovative culture, a culture that seeks change and strives for improvement, they must identify, value, improve and expect these five traits in their key assets, their people.