The 5 Skills of Innovative Leaders

Media leaves the impression that innovation is about a hero — a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Bill Gates — in the right place, at the right time. The formula is simple, magical and mysterious. Hero + Luck = Innovation.

A large quantitative study conducted by professors at MIT and Harvard says otherwise. As recounted in the Innovator’s DNA, professors Clay Christensen and Hal Gregersen interviewed hundreds of innovators, including founders of companies like eBay, PayPal, Dell and Amazon, to see what makes innovators work. We can conclude 3 things:

  1. Innovation is about a solid process, not luck
  2. There are 5 core characteristics of innovators
  3. The 5 characteristics can be learned

The Innovation Process

When the Masterworks innovation team develops new products or programs for clients, we begin having no idea where we’ll end. If we’re honest, this is scary for development and direct marketing professionals. We like data and plans. But when it comes to innovation, the key to success is not about an upfront, clear definition of the end. Success comes from a clear definition of the process we’ll use to get there. The second key is to combine that framework with discovery skills of innovation.

The 5 Discovery Skills of Innovators

“Creativity skills are not simply genetic traits endowed at birth… They can be developed.” — Innovator’s DNA

The study of innovator’s found 5 core traits that enable leaders like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel to successfully transition their ideas into thriving organizations. Combined, they’re called The Discovery Skills:

  1. Associating the ability to assimilate disparate information and ideas.
  2. Questioning asking consistently curious why? and what if? questions.
  3. Observing carefully watching the donor, your ministry, your employees and your context.
  4. Networking — actively seeking perspectives from people in different positions and fields. Rather than one CDO connecting with another, this looks like a CDO seeking input from someone in the mailroom or a CMO of a software company.
  5. Experimenting — trying new experiences, taking apart products processes or ideas, or testing an idea through pilots and prototypes.

As a leader, you can both develop these skills for yourself and focus on attracting them to your organization. Moving forward, we can think of the formula for innovation this way: Process + Discovery Skills = Innovation. Without the discovery skills, and without the process, you won’t have innovation. And without innovation, you won’t have a sustainable or culturally relevant organization.

To learn more about cultivating the discovery skills at your organization, check out the Innovator’s DNA. And to learn about our innovation process or to meet with innovators who are applying the discovery skills, you can reach me directly.