“I could either watch it happen or be a part of it.” – Elon Musk (Source)
How is the innovator mindset? How do leaders develop innovation? Where does the model of the place to go originate? Few, if any, leaders wake up one morning with visionary insight that came in the night. Fewer still hear mysterious inner voices guiding their path. We think the sources of innovation rest in two definable and attainable human qualities:
- Intellectual curiosity
- Dissatisfaction with things as they are.
Leaders constantly look for sources of information about the world in which they operate, be that the world of business, public service, or even community organizations.
They read, they study, they ask, they think. This search invokes the other quality – the incessant belief there must be a better way. We could launch into a potentially enlightening philosophical discussion on the true meaning of curiosity and dissatisfaction.
Dissatisfaction with things as they are
Instead we think stories drawn from the pages of history provide a better way to exemplify the process of developing innovation. In the early days of the automobile industry cars were very expensive and thus affordable only by the upper echelon of society.
Henry Ford studied the automotive landscape of those early years and came up with a better way. His early vision was to build a car affordable to the masses. That vision led to the perfection of the assembly line manufacturing technology and the $5 a day wage.
The rest is history. As Ford’s cars began to litter the landscape, another automotive visionary studied automobile consumers and spotted a sense of dissatisfaction.
They wanted choice. Born with a typical innovator mindset, Ford’s response supposedly was to claim his customers could have any color Ford car they wanted, as long as it was black.
That visionary was Alfred Sloan who would go on to build General Motors into the world’s largest corporation.
His vision was a car for any income strata with multiple choices in each automotive product line. Note that in each case the vision of the future and the innovation were influenced by the practices of both the past and the present.
Easiness to Mix Different Knowledge
Future possibilities must take present capabilities into account. And present capabilities are in many ways extensions of past practices. Some current leaders or those wishing to be leaders simply cannot conceive of themselves as a potential Henry Ford or Alfred Sloan. Yet the model of what those visionaries did is readily attainable.
Here are examples of some of the kinds of questions we suspect Ford and Sloan pondered about the past practices in their industry:
- What was effective in the past?
- Why was it effective?
- What did not work in the past?
- Why did it not work?
- What needs to be maintained in future approaches?
- What needs to be avoided?
The search for answers to these questions includes personal observations, written information, and the opinions of experts. The Internet age has opened readily available sources of information that in times gone by would have been difficult if not impossible to access in a timely fashion.
The study of the present, or things as they are, relies on similar questions. While information on past practices is helpful in developing a future innovation, information about present practices is vital. To begin a journey towards a place to go one has to know the starting point. Here are a few example questions:
- What are we doing that is effective and why is it effective?
- What are we doing that is not working and why is it not working?
- What are we doing now that should carry forward into future innovation?
- What are we doing now that needs to be avoided in future innovation?
When considering past and present practices, some leaders focus on expert opinion in their field of endeavor.
This includes any bit of information one can find originating with “opinion-makers” and those with recognized expertise.
Great leaders broaden the definition of “expert” to include those most directly involved in performing the actual work. This means the getting the opinions of “followers” and is one of several steps leaders can take to develop personal magnetism, which is the trait that draws in followers.
In summary, we feel the three critical components needed to develop innovation are intellectual curiosity, dissatisfaction, and general knowledge. Leaders study past and present work practices in the belief there is a better way. Great leaders involve those who do the actual work.