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Innovators and Thinkers

July 18, 2014


Some people might find the title of this article strange or confusing. After all, everybody thinks; especially innovators. Innovators’ minds never stop working. While it is true that everybody thinks, some pundits believe that different types of thinking skills are required to lead companies, conduct research, and/or develop products. There is also the long-standing debate about whether men and women “think” differently. Whether or not gender is involved, I do believe that people “think” differently for a lot reasons. For example, Holly Green (@HollyGGreen) insists, “Great leaders think strategically.” [“How to Develop 5 Critical Thinking Types,” Forbes, 27 March 2012] Like great players, strategic thinkers are in the moment but understand the longer-term implications of their actions. Green adds:

“Strategic leaders know how to strike a balance between visualizing what might or could be and an effective day-to-day approach to implementation. They can look into the future to see where the company needs to go and what it will look like once they get there. And they can do this while making sure the right things get done on a daily basis.”

While it’s not clear whether Green believes that people think differently, she clearly believes that there are different kinds of thinking. In fact, she makes the case that individuals must use different kinds of thinking in order to be successful in a variety of circumstances. She identifies five different types of thinking and how leaders can use them to succeed:


1. Critical thinking is the mental process of objectively analyzing a situation by gathering information from all possible sources, and then evaluating both the tangible and intangible aspects, as well as the implications of any course of action.


2. Implementation thinking is the ability to organize ideas and plans in a way that they will be effectively carried out.


3. Conceptual thinking consists of the ability to find connections or patterns between abstract ideas and then piece them together to form a complete picture.


4. Innovative thinking involves generating new ideas or new ways of approaching things to create possibilities and opportunities.


5. Intuitive thinking is the ability to take what you may sense or perceive to be true and, without knowledge or evidence, appropriately factor it in to the final decision.


I’m not sure there is much difference between conceptual thinking and innovative thinking. After all, Steve Jobs, who was widely recognized as one of the world’s great innovators, stated:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

I’m not even sure I accept the fact that these are different types of “thinking” rather than simply thinking about things using a different perspective. Her list is very similar, for example, to a creativity technique developed by Dr. Edward de Bono (@Edward_deBono) called “six-hat thinking.” The six hats are:


  • WHITE HAT thinking covers facts, figures, and data.
  • RED HAT thinking covers intuition, feelings, and emotions.
  • BLACK HAT thinking covers judgment and caution.
  • YELLOW HAT thinking is both logical and positive.
  • GREEN HAT thinking covers creativity, alternatives, and provocative proposals.
  • BLUE HAT thinking controls and directs the discussion (meta-cognition).


De Bono recommends that when individuals or groups start thinking about how to solve a new challenge they begin by looking at the challenge from the perspective suggested by each hat. That way, they can be assured that have taken into consideration most of factors that could impact possible solutions. Personally, I’m a proponent of using these kinds of techniques. Examining challenges using different perspectives almost always results in a greater number of good ideas. In the end, Green admits that these techniques are primarily useful for generating ideas. She also recommends a few other ideas:

“Get in the habit of stimulating your mind by not thinking about your business. From time to time, go outside your office and take a walk. Turn off your processing and just soak in the sights, sounds, and scents of the environment. Let your mind wander, and allow yourself the luxury of daydreaming. You’ll be amazed at what you can come up with simply by shifting out of the critical/implementation thinking modes from time to time.”

Coming up with ideas is good beginning. All innovations start with an idea. Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, however, believes that “we are also notoriously bad at evaluating the merit of our own ideas.” [“The Five Characteristics of Successful Innovators,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network, 25 October 2013] He explains:

“Most people fall [into a] trap of an illusory superiority that causes them to overestimate their creative talent, just as in other domains of competence (e.g., 90% of drivers claim to be above average — a mathematical improbability). It is therefore clear that we cannot rely on people’s self-evaluation to determine whether their ideas are creative or not. Yet there are relatively well-defined criteria for predicting who will generate creative ideas. Indeed, research shows that some people are disproportionately more likely to come up with novel and useful ideas, and that – irrespective of their field of expertise, job title and occupational background – these creative individuals tend to display a recurrent set of psychological characteristics and behaviors.”

Chamorro-Premuzic goes on to make another important point. “Creativity alone,” he writes, “is not sufficient for innovation: innovation also requires the development, production, and implementation of an idea.” He doesn’t address whether he believes that all of the traits that characterize a true innovator can be learned or are innate (like being hyperactive). Nevertheless he describes five of those traits:


1.An opportunistic mindset that helps them identify gaps in the market. Opportunities are at the heart of entrepreneurship and innovation, and some people are much more alert to them than others. In addition, opportunists are genetically pre-wired for novelty: they crave new and complex experiences and seek variety in all aspects of life. This is consistent with the higher rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among business founders.


2. Formal education or training, which are essential for noticing new opportunities or interpreting events as promising opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, most successful innovators are not dropout geniuses, but well-trained experts in their field. Without expertise, it is hard to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information; between noise and signals. This is consistent with research showing that entrepreneurship training does pay off.


3. Proactivity and a high degree of persistence, which enable them to exploit the opportunities they identify. Above all, effective innovators are more driven, resilient, and energetic than their counterparts.


4. A healthy dose of prudence. Contrary to what many people think, successful innovators are more organized, cautious, and risk-averse than the general population. (Although higher risk-taking is linked to business formation, it is not actually linked to business success).


5. Social capital, which they rely on throughout the entrepreneurial process. Serial innovators tend to use their connections and networks to mobilize resources and build strong alliances, both internally and externally. Popular accounts of entrepreneurship tend to glorify innovators as independent spirits and individualistic geniuses, but innovation is always the product of teams. In line, entrepreneurial people tend to have higher EQ, which enables them to sell their ideas and strategy to others, and communicate the core mission to the team.


Chamorro-Premuzic adds a caveat. “Even when people possess these five characteristics,” he notes, “true innovation is unlikely to occur in the absence of a meaningful mission or clear long-term vision.” Gijs van Wulfen (@gijsvanwulfen) agrees with the conclusion that the best innovators are mission oriented. He calls them “need seekers,” a term coined by Booz & Company. [“The best innovators are need seekers.” in, 12 November 2012] He says that you can categorize companies as well as innovators as need seekers, market readers, or technology drivers. Van Wulfen indicates that a 2011 Booz & Company study concluded “that following a Need Seekers’ strategy offers the greatest potential for superior performance in the long term. … Need seeking is essential, because a good innovation is a simple solution to a relevant customer need.” Finding those “simple solutions” often requires that “the need” be examined from different perspectives. That’s why even innovators need to use different thinking techniques to be their best.

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