5 Skills Innovators Share (Plus 1 They Don’t)

Jamie Shanks
Jamie Shanks
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skills leaders common

Innovators do what others can’t – most of the time. Companies that excel at innovation tend to upend the market and send competitors scrambling. To become one of these companies, it takes innovative leaders with a free hand to win some, lose some and never stop questioning assumptions. Take a look at the evidence of what innovators do better, based on surveys with thousands of business leaders from every corner of the planet.

1. Innovators Stay Curious

There’s always more to learn as the world goes on changing. All skills dull with time. A commitment to continuous training keeps the competitive edge decisively sharp. Establish a company culture that rewards learning and promotes original perspectives. Every setback should be treated as a lesson.

2. Innovators Argue for Their Ideas

Resistance sharpens the saw. General George S. Patton famously insisted, “If everybody is thinking alike, somebody isn’t thinking.” Innovative leaders appreciate and support leadership qualities in others. Assertiveness doesn’t mean aggression. Both have their uses, and knowing when to apply each one takes practice. 

3. Innovators Can Turn on a Dime

Don’t confuse being proactive with being distracted. Keep a running estimate of how likely a project is to meet its expectations. Set triggers to alert the team when it is time to bring in additional resources or take the project in new directions. Revisit past opportunities that failed or were abandoned. By some measures, two-thirds of projects fail. Fix the problems, and get it right the next time.

4. Innovators Prepare for Everything Going Wrong

 Risk is essential to the definition of a venture. Risk should not be avoided. It needs to be tackled head on with contingency plans. The RELX group runs 10 to 15 experiments every year and then invests in only one or two of them. Investigate the best practices for each idea, and assess the risks. Set time limits for analysis to avoid over-thinking. Learn how to live with risk.

5. Innovators Are Well Aware of Their Weaknesses

 Knowing what is trending in an industry is not the same as knowing the best strategy for a specific company. Work from a recent SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to achieve more successful innovations. Look back at profitable projects, and define what factors were essential to those successes. Understanding what a company does well is the other side of knowing where its weaknesses lie.

+1. Innovators Need Help With Details

Innovators live in the world of the unknown. They are constantly looking for patterns and tend to have a laser-focus on efficiency. That is why they are sometimes referred to as “lazy.” Bill Gates said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” Accuracy and an established order are skills that innovators often need to bring in by using productivity software and personal assistants. 

Recap for the Busy Innovator

Successful innovation arises from relentless curiosity. It requires leaders who seek out conflicting viewpoints and don’t shrink away from defending the merits of an idea. These leaders shift gears immediately to capture new markets. They don’t rush into a new project launch without a plan to minimize the risks, though. They make decisions based on a SWOT breakdown of what their business does well and what skills will have to be brought on board to win the day. The one area that innovators need the most help with is organizing their many responsibilities. Productivity software and frequent but brief check-ins with teams are essential to maintaining the speed and accuracy of their innovative projects.


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