The 10 Habits of Every World-class Innovator
By Steve Kurti, PhD
Innovation Mindset Map
00. Take Responsibility… completely [details]
01. Solve Problems… proactively [details]
02. Take Action… immediately [details]
03. Work Hard… consistently [details]
04. Take Risks… often [details]
05. Embrace Failure… thoughtfully [details]
06. Develop GRIT… willingly [details]
07. Remain Positive… diligently [details]
08. Collect Wisdom… continuously [details]
09. Pursue Excellence… intentionally [details]
We have had a strong response from innovators and leaders supporting these habits as key indicators for world-changers. Check our credibility and learn more about these innovators and leaders.
Open each section below for a more detailed discussion of the IMM sections.
The first item in the map is listed as “0”. This is not an accident and isn’t strictly a technical approach to the list. It is “0” because it is the foundation upon which all the other actions/habits are built. Without this first step, there is no innovation, and as innovators return to this step in each spiral, more responsibility leads to more influence.
You will notice items 1-5 are inset. These items form a small spiral inside the full Innovation Mindset Map which on their own outline the process to develop a product or idea into a practical contribution. Every time one loops through items 1-5, they move a little further up, gain more perspective, and are able to improve the product or idea.
Items 0-9, including the smaller Development Spiral (1-5), are a life spiral in which individuals continuously grow into better innovators. Each step builds on the last, and every time around the 0-9 loop, new lessons are learned and applied which makes the loop a spiral of continuous improvement, wisdom, and excellence. Any innovator who embraces this map is bound to become a change agent of significance, and the deeper the adoption, the higher the impact.
We all enjoy a good innovation. Better wifi, newer phones, and more comfortable cars. We watch SpaceX launch new rockets with fascination and stand open-mouthed as our fingers try new features on the screen of a new laptop. We are transfixed by technology, but largely unfamiliar with the innovative processes that lead to breakthroughs.
New ideas take a well-known path through our consciousness. What makes the new ideas take shape is the experiences and connections our individuality bring to the challenge. While the innovation process is quite simple, it takes practice, reflection, and many iterations through the process before our ideas have been tested sufficiently to transform into innovations.
The innovation process develops in the mind of an innovator through the following the ten time-tested spiraling actions in the Innovation Mindset Map. Due to the spiral nature of the map, the map works in a spiral adding wisdom on each rotation with a better view of the world-change landscape.
At first glance, you probably noticed a few things. The list starts with zero “0” rather than one “1”–not an accident. Actions 1-5 are set apart–a special group of ideas with their own spiral. The final item in the list “9” is probably the only step most people have ever really noticed when they try the new phone, watch a space launch, or experience new products.
The most important aspect of the list springs from the page in the first word in each item. Innovation lives. It can’t be thought up from the mind with no interaction from the physical world. Trial and error, learning from failure, reflecting on the lessons learned… a very active process.
We have tested the Innovation Mindset Map (IMM) process with teenagers, and the results are astounding. Teens who adopt these ideals as a map to navigate life find their mindset altered and their creative innovative skills improved.
Deeper Dive on the Innovation Mindset Map
Everything starts here
We are very accustomed to hearing blame shifting and spin in the media, but when we don’t take responsibility, we lose control. Moving the responsibility outside of ourselves also moves the control. The resulting loss of control turns us into victims and ultimately into slaves of the circumstances surrounding us. We are constantly assailed by the thought, “I do not know how” or “I can’t”.
Taking responsibility, on the other hand, gives us control. We are no longer victims of circumstance but masters of our destiny. When we choose to admit our faults and strengths, we gain control of our decisions. We are able to think the following thought: “I can’t do this… YET.” The “YET” is everything.
When we admit that we cannot do something yet, we are saying, “I do not now know what I need to solve the problem, but I can learn what I need to and accumulate the knowledge and resources to meet the challenge!”
By shifting our mindset to take responsibility now and as completely as we know how, we can finally grapple with the truth of a situation. We admit the truth. We accept the facts and begin to look for ways through, around, or over the obstacle.
This begins the creative process, and some insist that creativity is actually inspired by limitations. Taking responsibility puts us in a place to embrace our limitations and begin to transcend them.
The REAL SECRET to great products and ideas.
Looking for a problem to solve as a habit of life opens the door to the first step in what is called the “Stanford Design Thinking” model, or simply “design thinking”. The first step in design thinking is to empathize with a customer or individual with a problem. This step is crucial because many products die a slow death of neglect because nobody asked if people wanted them.
Empathy is a tricky topic. At first glance, we would all say, “I know how to empathize”, but research indicates that a vanishingly small number of empathy projects ever manage to move the dial. This is because empathy is a choice. It cannot be pushed on someone else. It is an internal choice we make to understand another human being.
Empathy is also a skill that grows over time as we gain life experience. Every time through the IMM spiral, innovators learn to empathize more fully. In turn, their solutions become just a little better and the adoption of their ideas more fervent.
The key to this process is the word “Proactively”. No one can decide to empathize for you. You can’t pay for an empathy report or hire an empathy expert to help you make decisions. The word “proactive” contains the Latin root “pro” which means “before”, and thus requires action BEFORE being forced into it. Until you personally decide to help others because you have made it an internal value, true innovation and significance will elude you.
Individuals occasionally stumble across a good idea, but individuals who adopt the mindset to solve problems proactively become engines of innovation. The world comes regularly to their doorstep because they form a habit of solving meaningful problems.
“He who hesitates is lost.” –attributed to Joseph Addison
Addison specifically wrote, “Swift and resolute action leads to success; self-doubt is a prelude to disaster.” Innovators make it a habit to think a little and then act swiftly. It isn’t that no thought precedes action. Instead, great instincts are honed, and the habit of swift little actions is harnessed to quickly determine the viability of an idea.
The very successful have a habit of moving immediately on a good idea before the passion for it subsides. A great idea has a half-life. With each passing day, the fervor and excitement diminish along with the probability of action.
As innovators progress through the IMM spiral, they not only learn to take action more quickly they also develop solid systems which can quickly vet an idea. They learn to dispense quickly with a bad idea just as surely as decisively pursuing a good one. After a while, the rate at which a great innovator takes action may become positively dizzying to the uninitiated. No wonder many find it difficult to keep up with Elon Musk or Richard Branson and why history scratches its head over Nikola Tesla.
Follow a change agent for a day, and you will be amazed at the amount they are able to get done simply by taking action immediately.
Nothing of significance occurs without a lot of hard work.
For proof of this principle turn your mind to the American men and women who lived through World War II. Often referred to now as “The Greatest Generation” thanks to Tom Brokaw, they earned the title because of a heroic work ethic. 40% of the nation’s food during the war was produced from “victory gardens” grown by individual families so that the main farming infrastructure could send extra rations to the troops overseas.
For the first time in American culture, women entered the workforce in large numbers and because everyone pitched in, worked hard, and gave it all they had, freedom prevailed in Europe. Few know just how close the Allies were to losing the war. Hard work and sacrifice of individuals such as Eric “Red” Erickson pushed the balance just far enough in favor of the Allies that Germany never fully developed their nuclear technology, couldn’t fly their jets because of fuel shortages, and were able to overwhelm Axis powers on D-day through sheer force of will and hard work.
Throughout history, hard work proves out as an essential quality of an innovator. Elon Musk actually says, “Work SUPER hard!” He believes this so strongly he mentions it in many interviews. Richard Branson encourages innovators to “Work hard, play hard.” Either way, consistent hard work must be a core value for any serious innovator.
New ideas always entail some risk.
The old proverb “no risk, no reward” persists because innovation requires risk, but we tend to avoid risk. Even veteran innovators have a risk threshold. Risk isn’t about doing foolish things. It is about learning how to rattle the dragon guarding the treasure without getting eaten by it. Sometimes we mollify it by speaking, sometimes we sneak by, and sometimes we antagonize it so the weak spot presents itself for our tactics.
Either way, the only way to get to the treasure is to circumvent the danger guarding it. However, the celebrated business author Jim Collins suggests that the best businesses fire bullets then cannonballs. When we want to challenge the status quo to bring about reward, we invoke risks, but experienced innovators have learned how to take the right risks. Not all risks are weighted equally.
We can learn to find acceptable risks by learning to assess the risk asymmetry. Some risks have a huge upside and a minimal downside, and great innovators love this type of risk.
Some risks have a huge downside and minimal upside, innovators learn to avoid these like the plague. Still other risks have huge upside potential and a significant downside, and in this case, the probability of success must be very carefully weighed.
Yet in the final analysis, risks are a function of our understanding of reality which can only be learned by experience. Thus every great innovator has learned to wisely take risks often to increase their experience and chances of success.
Failure is the only friend you have who will tell you the hard truth.
We fail because we didn’t take something into account or because we simply didn’t have the proper skill to perform the action. Thus great innovators have become good at analyzing failure in order to succeed the next time. In the eyes of a great innovator, failure is simply a test that leads to ultimate success.
Innovators making their way through the IMM spiral have built a toolkit that allows them to quickly learn from failure and immediately return to meaningful action so they can achieve success. This insight into life has led to the aphorism “Fail fast, fail often.”
In fact, Elon Musk in reference to NASA said, “Failure IS an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” For this reason, SpaceX is quickly becoming an international space phenomenon, and their plans to build a Mars colony may actually have legs because they are failing quickly on little things as they build a powerful infrastructure for space travel.
By thoughtfully considering and embracing failures, great innovators have learned things no one else knew and produced results no one dreamed was possible.
Let’s look carefully at steps 1-5
- Solve Problems… proactively
- Take Action… immediately
- Work Hard… consistently
- Take Risks… often
- Embrace Failure… thoughtfully
It will pay us great dividends to notice how the action habits 1-5 build on each other and spiral back to bring better and better versions of products and ideas. As already mentioned, solving problems proactively gains strength from its underlying skill, powerful empathy. At each turn, the empathy grows and with it the passion to see the product, service, or strategy solving problems for real people who need it.
At each turn of the spiral from failure (5) to a new angle on a possible solution (1), the key to innovation is the “thoughtfully” in step 5. That thinking leads to the new approach for the next rotation of the spiral. This is the nexus of learning, the holy grail of every teacher, leader, or innovator. Here is where the magic occurs, because the action and reaction in the cycle is fed back into the supercomputer on our shoulders (yes, it is more powerful than the best supercomputer in 2018). Our mind reflects, schemes, and intuits its way to another approach, and over time we become masters at solving problems when we harness the Development Spiral.
With such passion to fuel this spiral development (as many call the process of great product development), Action, hard work, and risks lead eventually to success instead of failure at step 5. It may take 2 or 3 revolutions around the spiral to create a great product or as many as dozens or even hundreds of revolutions for particularly challenging problems, but eventually, the Development Spiral outlined by steps 1-5 lead to powerful solutions and meaningful change financially, socially, psychologically, or in whatever way the spiral is serving the development.
This spiral is not reserved for use on tech development or products only. It works for political ideas, musical masterpieces, or theories of the universe. It is simply the way innovative humans have approached problems with no previous solution. In each field of application, nuances will be applied to the process, but underneath it all, these are the actions supporting a mindset to keep working, risking, and learning until the problem at hand yields to persistence and the innovation produced by the learning at each cycle of the spiral.
GRIT is the rainbow unicorn of the educational world.
A quick review of the serious literature will yield a very few research groups and techniques that claim to influence GRIT, determination, persistence, or other word used to describe the strength one gains internally to stick with a problem. Somehow certain individuals in our culture create the habit of enduring the punishment of ridicule, the sting of defeat, or the futility of trying over and over again without giving up.
Of all the habits in the Innovation Mindset Map (IMM), developing grit requires the deepest willingness and internal commitment. Of all the habits, this one has the lowest probability of “catching on” because there is absolutely no way to force it onto another individual. This habit must be chosen internally. A student of the process must here decide they WANT to develop GRIT, on purpose. It must become an internal value chosen willingly.
Think back over some of the most inspiring stories, movies, or accounts in history. What was at the core? Most likely, you will find an individual or group of individuals committed to stay with a process until they solved the problem or died in the effort: the 300 at Thermopylae Pass, Washington in Valley Forge, D-day, Watson and Crick, Shawn Fanning the summer he coded Napster, all great love stories, or any other hard accomplishment. Each of these required persistence.
The beauty of the IMM spiral is how practicing the Development Spiral leads very naturally to the development of grit willingly. In the service of a bigger task or ideal, we engage our will power and almost before we realize it, we are invested in a process that inspires us. We realize that hard things are worth the price we pay, and after we find our way to a few successes we really begin to develop the GRIT muscle, but we include “Develop GRIT willingly” in the IMM spiral as its own step because it is such a nexus of innovation.
The path to Innovation is guarded.
Innovation itself does not appear to be the guard, but nevertheless, it is guarded. Experienced innovators will understand the importance of a diligent defense against “can’t, shouldn’t, won’t, too hard” and a host of other roadside lairs hiding the dragons of despair, doubt, and fear.
The only defense against negativity is to fix your eyes on the goal and diligently remain positive that you will reach that goal. Carelessness in defending your mind against dark thoughts and doubts has led to the loss of many great would-be innovators. In a moment of weakness they decided “it can’t be done”, “I can’t do it”, or any one of dozens of other mental traps set for the uninitiated.
The road to innovation is NOT a tame road, and this step is both a warning and a crucial habit designed to defend the mind against the only thing that can stop a true innovator: their own internal dialogue. The defense of remaining positive diligently isn’t a careless vision of rainbows and unicorns. Instead, it is a steadfast resolution to finish the quest–a worthy goal chosen willingly.
Without sounding schizophrenic, one strategy to ward off unwanted negativity is to treat negative thoughts as an outside force trying to keep you from your goal. We are not talking about wisdom which shows the weaknesses of an idea, but the dark melee of voices often heard by innovators along the way. Instead, we analyze all the negative thoughts rolling through our consciousness for the stamp of wisdom (accept) or fear (reject).
At every turn of the IMM spiral, remaining positive becomes an ever more important habit, and experienced innovators create an almost unbreakable shield of purpose and positive resolve to see their journey through. However, this particular step is very nuanced, and we highly recommend the aid of more experienced innovators as new innovators seek to implement the habit of remaining positive diligently.
Wisdom is not the result of intellect alone.
At Innovation Academy we know some absolutely brilliant people–wicked smart! This next statement is not to diminish their intellect but rather to dispel a myth.
If intellect alone was required for wisdom and innovation, we would have solved cancer, space travel, clean water, sustainable food supply, clean energy, and hundreds of other nascent global challenges. Intelligence is only half of the key to innovation and wisdom. The other half is experience, practical testing, or beating your idea against reality to see if it breaks. An idea alone is fragile unless it is annealed in the fire of reality.
Think of true wisdom as street smart intelligence or common sense gleaned by using reality as an anvil. Ideas are born in our mind fragile, but as we test them in the real world and learn from the feedback we get, they get strong. Ultimately a good idea gets tested many times before it is realized as a powerful innovation.
For instance, sending rockets into outer space didn’t happen simply as a result of “the Kennedy speech”. Robert Goddard, the father of space travel, and his team launched 34 rockets–about 2 a year–for 15 years and only managed to reach speeds of 55o mph. It took WWII and the cold war to give the fire it needed to start NASA and finally after decades, launch the first Americans around the moon at over 25,000 mph! In the beginning, we simply didn’t know enough about the universe to get a man into space, but by continuously thinking, acting, thinking again, acting again… for decades we learned how to overcome earth’s gravity to reach the escape velocity required to achieve space travel.
This process can be best understood as another spiral in which half of each rotation is thinking and the other half is acting. First, we think of something we would like to accomplish. Then we try it. In the process, reality teaches us things we didn’t know before. We then spiral around again with the new knowledge, thinking and acting our way to wisdom. We progressively loop around the spiral achieving new heights by continuously collecting new wisdom at each turn.
Welcome to the limelight!
This is the only step ever reported in the news–except for dramatic failures. The media hypes up companies as overnight successes simply because no one was paying attention as the innovators looped through the other 9 steps, continually becoming better at their craft.
This final step focuses on both “excellence” AND “intentionally”. At the end of the day, we get paid for our excellence. If we create a process that is vastly cheaper, our excellence is in cost reduction. If we create a process known for its quality, our excellence is in quality control. No matter the innovation, we MUST BECOME GREAT at our craft. To be truly noticed, you need to become the best.
On its face this may sound elitist “to become the best”, but truly that is what people pay for: the best solution to their problem. For some people, cheaper is better. For others, quality is better. For still others, novel solutions are the best. The best innovators find their niche and become the best, often the best in the world as Jim Collins suggests.
The pinnacle of the innovator’s journey comes into view as the innovator spirals around the IMM process. Whether “best” is the journey of a lifetime or simply the result of a few years of hard work, the innovator’s journey never ends.
At every turn of the Innovation Mindset Map spiral, the innovator looks back at the results of the journey to intentionally assess and continue pursuing excellence until it is achieved.
We haven’t covered every facet of the Innovation Mindset Map (IMM) in this overview. There are issues of collaboration, integrity, and other character traits, but the “collect wisdom continuously” step covers these other aspects. No single list of “5 things”, “7 things”, “10 things”, or even “1000 things” will be complete when it comes to the knowledge required to become an innovator, loved and respected for the changes they bring. Instead, wisdom must be continuously collected, excellence pursued, and goals relentlessly kept in view by means of the IMM spiral process.
The path of innovation spirals up from the plane of mediocrity, and many are unwilling to put forth the effort to become truly innovative. “Me too” products and research papers abound, but a true innovator cannot be satisfied with mediocrity once the quest is begun.
The details of the innovation map may vary from person to person or from project to project, but the mindset required to achieve those innovations is at once as fresh as the latest experiment in the lab and as timeless as humanity itself. In our hearts, we know as innovators that we must find out what is just over the next hill or around the bend. We long to see the surface of the Moon, Mars, and the nearest planet in the “Goldilocks Zone”. We won’t be satisfied until we know.
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