By Joe Fusco
We all love the idea of innovation, right?
I want to be innovative. You want to be innovative. Everybody wants to be innovative.
In pursuing or talking about innovation in business, the danger is that we give it merely lip service, and treat it as a fad or a fashionable idea to toss like confetti in our meetings and in our marketing. We risk using it as a cheap applause line in our conversations about economic development, public policy, and strategic planning without really understanding or acknowledging what it demands of us.
If we’re being honest, innovation is not a fad. It is not merely a fashionable way to think and talk about business, or the future, or the next big social media gold rush.
Survival of the Fittest
Innovation has always been a quiet and persistent foundation of great companies and great organizations. Success and happiness in business and in life has always been about the ability to solve increasingly complex problems at a mastery level. Innovation is really about that daily and often unfashionable pursuit — “is there a better way to solve this problem?”
And so at every level, in every molecule, companies and their leaders are either relentlessly innovating, or they’re dying. In business, there’s no in-between, no picking and choosing, and no simply talking about being innovative.
The best leaders and business people are natural, rather than fashionable, innovators. It is foundational to who they are and what they do. It is a lifestyle, and an attitude.
The good news is that we can closely study great organizational leaders and effective innovators.
We can glimpse into their frame of mind, and take note of their beliefs, their values, their motivations, and their behaviors. And, if we’re willing to pay the price in hard work and persistence, we can build the same foundation, the same lifestyle and the same attitude.
What Makes a Great Innovator?
Here are some of the beliefs and behaviors we see in great, consistent innovators, and people who lead innovative organizations. They are, of course, the same traits and attitudes we see in any great business leader:
- They’re not afraid to fail, nor do they criminalize the mistakes of others. They see mistakes as either the elimination of a wrong answer, or one step closer to the right answer. They have a strong sense of inner calm, and recover quickly from their setbacks.
- Naturally, they love to play and experiment. They enjoy letting their brain out of its cage, and being unbound to existing paradigms and thought patterns. They’d rather die than utter the words, “we’ve always done it that way.”
- They’re great at seeing innovation as often incremental, rather than the result of a mythological bolt from the blue. They are disciplined about the milestones they set for themselves and others along that path. They are persistent and focused, and not easily distracted from their goal. They’re also very realistic about what is and what isn’t possible.
- They love reasonable risks, and work that takes them out of their comfort zones which, of course, is where most innovation exists. They love learning, and their pursuit of new answers.
- They see innovation and problem-solving as a collaboration between people with different skills and different perspectives. They love to connect with others who are working on similar problems. They’re great listeners and motivators.
- They place a high value on a diversity of ideas, particularly those that originate outside themselves. They are rarely, if ever, driven by their ego in solving problems. They see the competition between ideas as the best pathway to a better idea or innovation.
- They are comfortable not being part of the crowd, and frequently being an outlier. They recognize that, in human history, nearly every great idea or paradigm, service, product or performance started out with one person, alone — often laughed at or persecuted. It was great because it was different, undiscovered, and didn’t make sense under any existing rulebook or measuring stick.
This is by no means a complete list. Innovation is a rich subject, driven by complex external and internal forces. But in my experience, these are some of the most important qualities of the world’s best problem solvers.
Make a deliberate effort to embrace these values, beliefs and behaviors. Innovation at its core is a mastery level of commitment to and skill in solving the problems that are right in front of you every day.
And look around you: the world we live in is woefully short of great problem solvers. We need you to make that commitment. Being an innovator, and having the attitude of an innovator, is your best bet.
Joseph Fusco serves on the Board of Advisors for the University of Vermont’s Sustainable Entrepreneurship MBA (SEMBA). He is an advisor to the chairman and chief executive officer of Casella Waste Systems, Inc., and is currently chairman of Vermont’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy steering committee.