Characteristics of a Skilled Innovator

This is a recurring segment every issue that explores the common characteristics of a successful innovator.

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Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most influential innovators of all time. In his 1998 book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael Gelb outlined seven principles that he believes define Da Vinci’s work. We think they are also good markers for a successful innovator.

1. Curiosita: An insatiably curious approach to life

When it comes to searching for new ideas, this is key. The best innovators are those that can see something new or exciting in the most mundane, everyday things. Constantly asking “Why?” yields answers to things that may never have been uncovered if the person hadn’t taken the time to look deeper. When we only observe things at face value, we lose out on all the reasons why and how something works the way it does and digging into that background often leads to unanswered questions, unmet needs and, therefore, problems worth solving for that insatiably curious innovator.

2. Dimonstratzione: A commitment to test knowledge through experience

A successful innovator is not satisfied with accepting accumulated knowledge and norms within an organization. If someone tells him, “We already tried that; it didn’t work because of…”, or “We know that won’t work because of…”, he thanks them for their advice and goes on to try it anyway, his way. He reasons, “If there was a problem to solve back then and what they tried didn’t work to fix it, that problem still exists for me to solve today!” Even if he runs into the same hurdles as his predecessors, the practice of trying gives him valuable personal knowledge and experience that will help him with his next task.

3. Sensazione: The continual refinement of the senses, especially sight, as the means to clarify experience

A successful innovator looks for inspiration everywhere. Sometimes it comes in a form you least expect. Always being observant of people and your surroundings can give you insights into how other people or things solve problems that may, in some way, be incorporated into an innovative solution for your problem. This is why, in innovation sessions, it is great to do creativity exercises that seem to have nothing to do with the task, and then force a connection. A totally new approach, using your observations from your unrelated experiences, can be just the thing you need to see the problem from a different angle.

Also, a good innovator knows that using formal or informal ethnography, totally immersing yourself in your customer’s world by observing how they operate in their “native” environment, can shed light on underlying motivations and other important drivers, and ultimately lead to great insights and ideas. This can involve, for example, asking them to use a product that you want to redesign or improve, say a blender or a vacuum cleaner, when and how they usually use it in their home. Then, using your keen Sensazione, you observe them using the product. This will illuminate areas for improvement or frustrations that can be addressed. We have had great success with innovative incremental improvements or total redesigns of products using this approach with our clients.

4. Sfumato: A willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and unertainty

A successful innovator takes pride in thinking deeper. DaVinci’s understanding of sfumato, embracing the unknown, is powerful. If you always think you know the answer, then you miss the opportunity to see what is truly important.
By engaging with the uncomfortable nature of uncertainty, you open yourself up to different perspectives. The more varied the perspectives you entertain, the more diverse the avenues you can travel to solve problems, to see patterns, and to seek inspiration.

Chris’s boss at North American Phillips used to stand up in the middle of a staff meeting and physically pivot on his heels when they had to change direction. And he’d say… “this is why we have round heels so we can change direction when we learn something new”. They were in the middle of an M&A and divestiture process so he was on his feet a lot.

The ability to manage through ambiguity, the ability to have flexibility, and good humor in the face of change is critical to the process of understanding and serving our customer. Their world is changing just as fast or faster than ours. It’s important to deeply understand the customer and empathize with them so that victory is achieved together. If you are the supplier remember the thought, “Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did only backwards and in heels”. That’s you.

5. Arte/Scienza: Using your whole brain.

Design thinking, whole-brain thinking, logic and imagination, yin and yang, female and male; again and again we learn that concepts that are seemingly different, when put together, create surprising strength.

Apparently the ancient Chinese knew this, Leonardo DaVinci knew this, and more recently Tom Kelly has re-popularized the concept through “design thinking”. How do you bring the power of diverse perspective into play in your world of work? For yourself try to learn, read or do one thing every few days that is different, even if only a different food. For your team perhaps you could expand meetings every now and then to include others (finance, legal, etc.) for the organization… allow entropy to rule the placement of work areas. Become a workshop that changes as the nature of the work changes and encourage people to move around from time to time.


What did the Hare Krishna say to the Hot Dog Vendor? “Make me one with everything”. 

Sorry for the joke but there is truth on many levels in this old story… even if a bit of an odd entrance into philosophy. Leonardo da Vinci considered CORPORALITA to be one of the key features of the creative mind… Cultivating grace, ambidexterity, fitness and poise… a monks life for sure. He also felt strongly that CONNESSIONE recognizing and appreciating the interconnectedness of all things – ‘systems thinking’ was a critical component.

And there you have it, the Hare Krishna monk asking for one with everything. Not bad for a silly old joke.

There are seven principles. Tune in next month for the next principle!

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