Innovators are made and not born! Learn How!

Innovators are made and not born! Learn (1)According to a study made by Harvard, MIT and Brigham Young Universities, it showed that think creatively depends on just one third in genetics and two thirds on the development of specific skills. This is really good news and it is proved also from the practices that well known organisations apply for fostering innovation. Let’s see those 5 skills briefly with real examples.

Skill 1: Connecting things

The ability to connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields is fundamental for being innovative. Breakthrough ideas are most often “intersectional” and occur when we bring concepts from one field into a new unfamiliar area, where ideas and concepts from diverse industries, cultures, departments, and disciplines collide and ultimately igniting an explosion of ideas leading to extraordinary innovations. A very nice example is Medici effect that refers to the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together people from a wide range of disciplines – sculptors, scientists, poets, philosophers, painters, and architects and as these individuals connected, new ideas blossomed, thereby giving birth to the Renaissance, one of the most inventive art eras in history.

Google believes that ideas come from everywhere and can lead to great innovations as long as they are associated accordingly. They have an internal list where employees post new ideas and everyone can go on and see them, votes on them and comment on how good or bad they think an idea is. These comments lead to new ideas. Steve Jobs had consistently been repeating “Creativity is connecting things”. He was able to generate idea after idea because he has spent almost all his lifetime exploring new and unrelated things, such as the calligraphy, meditation practices and the fine details of Mercedes Benz for example. It is important to highlight that the more our experiences and knowledge, the more connections we can make and fresh inputs trigger new connections and associations and this can lead to innovative ideas.

Actions for improving your connecting things skill and culture: Why don’t you join or create platform(s) (virtual) or a place(s) (physical) that anyone from your organization, department or even community can share their ideas for new products, services, new research items and receive comments? Let’s learn from Medici effect or from Google practices!

Skill 2: Questioning

Most of the great innovators (including the founders of eBay, PayPal, Skype, Dell computer, Salesforce, Apple etc) love upsetting the status quo. They spend a vast amount of time thinking about how to change the world and they like to ask: “if we did this, what would happen?” Most managers focus on understanding how to make existing processes (the status quo) – work a little better (e.g. How can we improve the battery life of smartphone X). Innovators on the other hand, are much more likely to ask “If we double the battery life of smartphone X, how would that change the value proposition it offers?” or “What if we double the battery life of smartphone X, how would that change the value proposition it offers?” Do you see the point.

One of Google’s nine innovation principles is “Creativity loves constraint” and Google engineers thrive on constraints. They love to think their way out of the box and they very often say “We know they said it was impossible, but we are going to do this, this and that to get us there”

Actions for improving your Questioning skill and culture: Keep on asking yourself, your colleagues, your friends, your clients, your partners, your funders

  1. “Why”,
  2. “Why not” and
  3. “What if”.

Ask questions that will help you to see a problem or opportunity from a different angle. A good tip is try spending 15 to 30 minutes each day writing down 10 new questions that challenge the status quo in your organization or in your clients’ one. It is likely that nobody will have the answer to those questions yet but as Peter Drucker (the first guru in project management) once said “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right questions”.

Skill 3: Observing

Innovators literally act as anthropologists and social scientists since they carefully, intentionally and consistently observe the behavior of potential clients, look out for small behavioral details in the activities of customers, partners, suppliers, and other companies and gain insights on new ways of doing things. Google focuses on users and not on money. They believe if they focus on the users, their behaviors and needs, then money will come. Also Akio Toyoda applies regularly genchi genbutsu philosophy – “Going to the spot and seeing for yourself” and frequent direct observation has been well integrated into Toyota culture.

Actions for improving your observing skill and culture:

Go and watch how certain customers use and experience a product or service in their natural environment. You are suggested to spend if possible an entire day carefully observing the tasks that customers (potential or current) are trying to get done. However, you should not make judgments about what you see (e.g. thinking this is bad or good) but instead observe as silently and neutrally as possible and ask yourself “ what’s different than I expected?”

Skill 4: Experimenting

Innovators make experimentation central to everything they do but in a structured and methodical way. For example, again Google applies the “launch early and often” strategy. They launch it early on Google Labs and then iterate, learning what the market wants – and making it great. For example, some companies think the design of some of their products as an art but Google thinks of design as a science. They run on 1% of their audience a test on whichever design does best against the user-happiness metrics over a two-week period and this is the one they launch. They probably have somewhere between 50 and 100 experiments running on live traffic and the beauty of experimenting in this way, is that you never get too far from what the market wants. The market pulls you back. In addition, since year 2000, lets their engineers spend 20% of their time on experimenting on whatever they want and it trusts that they build interesting things. Bezos sees also experimentation as so critical to innovation that he has institutionalized it at Amazon by encouraging their employees to experiment. He says “If we can get processes decentralized so that we can do a lot of experiments without it being very costly, we’ll get a lot more innovation.”

Actions for improving your experimenting skill and culture:

You can definitely apply some of the practices adopted by innovative organisations that I just mentioned and create a culture of experimentation and innovation. Personally, you can start living and working overseas! A research reveals that the more countries a person has lived in, the more likely he or she is to exploit that experience to deliver innovative products, processes, or businesses. In fact, managers that try out even one international assignment before becoming CEO, their companies deliver higher financial results (7% on average) that companies run by CEOs without such experience. In principle you need to collect knowledge and experiences in work and life and then experiment with them. For example, you can attend seminars and training on topics outside your area of expertise; study a product or process that interests you; read books and industry magazines that help you to identify emerging trends (maybe google trends could be helpful also); learn about different lifestyles and local behavior while you travel. Then develop new hypotheses from the knowledge you have acquired and test them in the invention of new products or processes.

Also find ways to establish regular, small experiments at all levels in your organization or in your client’s one. Openly endorse that learning through failure or through small scale tests is valuable and it goes a long way toward building an innovative culture.

Skill 5: Networking

Innovators go out to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains. They aim to establish a network of diverse individuals and dedicate time and energy to finding and testing ideas. They attend idea conferences such as TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), Davos and other Ideas Festival such as Aspen. Such conferences attract artists, entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, adventurers, scientists and thinkers from all over the world that come to share their newest ideas, passions and projects. Michael Lazaridis from Research In Motion, David Neeleman from JetBlue, Kent Bowen from CPS technologies and many others came up with ideas about their products through networking at conferences and elsewhere.

Actions for improving your networking skill and culture

To improve your networking skills, contact the five most creative people you know or will know (check TED speeches as a start for identifying some) and ask them to share what they do to stimulate creative thinking and innovation. Do not hesitate to ask if they would be willing to act as your creative mentors. Apply the motto “Never Eat Alone” and hold regular idea lunches at which you meet a few new people from diverse functions, companies, industries, or countries and discuss about theirs and your innovative ideas and share feedback.

Short Conclusion. We have seen that innovative thinking can be developed and enhanced through specific practices. You need to put aside time and create a culture in your organization or in the client’s one and practice, practice, practice over and over the behaviors described here, to the point that they become automatic. In order to make your life easier and facilitate this process, I have surprise for you. I have prepared a diary template based on the above in order to allow you logging your actions for cultivating the necessary five skills. You can access this template by clicking on the link below.

Subscribe to download the “ Boost Innovation Tool”

Also please post a comment and tell me what you think of my article and feel free to ask any questions. I will be answering questions and reviewing comments personally.

So that’s it. I hope you find it useful and you can apply it to your particular situation in boosting your innovation skill and culture at a personal or corporate level.

Reference links

Marissa Mayer’s 9 Principles of Innovation

The innovator’s DNA



Nikolaos Floratos

About Nikolaos Floratos

Nikolaos Floratos after his undergraduate and postgraduate studies with distinction as engineer in London (Imperial College, City University), UK, has been working for a number of consultancy and Information Technology companies as consultant and project manager across Europe. He completed also an MBA (Master in Business Administration - National Technical University of Athens and Athens University of Economics and Business) and the last 19 years he is involved in planning, managing and evaluating large and small projects in the area of research, education, ICT (Information Communication Technologies), social inclusion, entrepreneurship, standardization and consumer issues. As a funding expert, personal trainer and coach, he has supported hundreds of individuals and organisations mainly from Europe but also from all over the world on managing state funding (e.g. from European Commission, National Funds, etc) and receive support for deploying their business idea or mission and he has proved that anyone can become a great proposal writer or project manager of european funded projects through proper guidance, training and coaching. He is an expert on behalf of the European Commission on evaluating and reviewing projects and proposals since 2003 and currently, he researches through a PhD how eLearning courses can increase students' engagement and motivation. He is the creator of the Funding Expert Transfomation Process™ system that can transform anyone to a great proposal writer and project manager of european funded projects. He is also interested in investing in highly innovative start-ups and SMEs and he is member of the European Business Angel Network and of the Institute of Leadership and Management. He has received more than 50 recommendations at his linkedin profile ( as a funding expert, coach and trainer. He is also the author of the ebook "Who are the Horizon 2020 champions and what to learn from them". He is also listed in the top first three search results by google as "Funding expert".

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