After writing and thinking about innovation and historical innovators in this blog for the last three years I’ve come up with the first iteration of a new way to classify innovators’ motivations, inspirations and work preferences. Down the road the goal would be to develop a tool to help companies, managers, venture capitalists and others identify, hire, manage, motivate, reward and retain the “right” innovators for the “right” projects.
Over the last three years it has become increasingly apparent that while most innovators share several common attributes, they come with different motivations, inspirations and preferences for thinking and working [1, 2, 3]. As far as I’m aware there is no robust model for classifying innovators or a tool for identifying innovators’ personalities. Some innovators are creative and conceptual, whereas others are practical and prone to tinkering. Some find inspiration from theory whereas others get new ideas from keen observation of nature. Others have a knack of being able to turn new ideas into money whereas others are poor businessmen. Hindsight is twenty-twenty though. The challenge for hiring managers etc. is to understand an applicant’s potential for innovation, including identifying people who will become breakthrough innovators, and then to provide an environment for them to succeed.
I propose that innovators can be categorized by their innovation style measured across three dimensions:
- innovation working style
Consider each of these dimensions as a sliding scale or continuum between two extremes where each innovator is “placed” or “scored” in each dimension to describe their overall innovation style.
Defining an Innovator’s Working Style… The Kirton Adaption-Innovation theory  identifies an individual’s thinking style. Individuals fall into a continuum on Kirton’s scale from Adaptors who focus on improving and “doing better” (typically what managers focus on) to Innovators who focus on “doing things differently”. Adaptors are characterized by words such as “precision”, “reliable”, “efficient”, “prudent” and “disciplined”, concerned with resolving problems by improvement whereas Innovators are characterized by words such as “undisciplined”, “unpredictable”, “tangential thinkers”, “liking to discover problems”, “abrasive” and “creating dissonance”.
I used Kirton’s theory as inspiration to describe a continuum of Innovation Working Styles from the Adaptive Innovator to the Disruptive Innovator.
Adaptive (A) Disruptive (D)
Adaptive Innovators would address an innovation project by tinkering with existing products, producing lots of prototypes and making incremental improvements to products (or services) until they develop a better working prototype. An example of an Adaptive Innovator would be Thomas Edison when he developed the light bulb. Adaptive Innovators are focused on ideas that address the question of how to improve existing things to make them better. On the other hand, Disruptive Innovators like Leonardo da Vinci are focused on developing completely new products/services and not improving existing ones. They may have more difficulty in translating their new ideas into reality because completely new methods or technologies are required to make working prototypes. They are focused on identifying new ideas that address the question of doing things differently rather than by modifying existing products. Often these new ideas require applications of new technologies or the application of existing technologies in new areas.
Both Adaptive Innovators and Disruptive Innovators are required in R&D groups in large organizations for balanced innovation to occur . A concentration of one group over the other will lead to a predominance of one type of idea.
Defining an Innovator’s Motivation… An innovator’s working style helps in understanding some innovator attributes but other dimensions are needed to understand, identify and categorize innovators more fully. For example, how would you identify Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla or Antoni Gaudi as innovators? Clearly they are all very different in terms of innovation characteristics. While I would classify Einstein, Tesla and Gaudi as Disruptive Innovators, Einstein was a theoretician, Tesla was an experimentalist and Gaudi was an architect who was a keen observer of nature. Einstein and Gaudi were not interested in entrepreneurial endeavors. Compare these innovators to Steve Jobs and Elon Musk who are successful entrepreneurs in that they have built large successful corporations. Contrast these innovators with Tesla who understood the importance of commercial enterprises and was involved in entrepreneurial endeavors but at his heart was more altruistic than entrepreneurial and ultimately died penniless .
This led me to think about innovator dimensions other than the innovation working style that could be used to further characterize innovators. One dimension that came up almost immediately was their motivation. Although many innovators like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are entrepreneurial and competitive by nature, many great innovators are not. Steve Wozniak (designer of Apple I &II), Albert Einstein (theory of special relativity, gravitation, mass/energy conversion), Antoni Gaudi (famous architect), Nikola Tesla (AC power system, electric motor), and Philo Farnsworth (electronic television) are examples of more intrinsically driven innovators who were more altruistic in their motives. They invented and developed innovations not to make money or to run a business but purely for the joy of innovation (or knowledge), the quest for knowledge, or for the betterment of mankind by advancing knowledge. I call these innovators altruistic innovators to more accurately describe their source of motivation as opposed to entrepreneurial innovators like Jobs, Musk, Bezos or Gates. This is not to say that entrepreneurial innovators have no altruistic motives, but on the “motivation” scale they exhibit more extrinsic motivations than intrinsic motivations and are better defined as entrepreneurial innovators.
Altruistic (L) Entrepreneurial (E)
Defining an Innovator’s Inspiration/Curiosity… Another dimension that I think identifies innovators is their inspirational source or curiosity. While all innovators are intensely curious, their curiosity might be directed towards observation of nature, consumer habits or other new product trends. I call these types of innovators observational innovators. Other innovators might draw ideas from and be more curious about new theories, new data or new scientific and engineering findings. I call these innovators abstract innovators. For example, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Gary Kildall (developed first microprocessor operating system, language and compiler) …. could be considered as abstract innovators whereas Antoni Gaudi, Ernest Rutherford (radioactivity, model of the atom, discover of the proton), John Cade (Australian physician who discovered the use of lithium for bipolar disorder, the first effective medication to treat a mental disorder) and Nikola Tesla could be considered as observational innovators.
So, for example, if an innovator draws inspiration by observation from nature (or the general world around them) I would classify them as an observational innovator. A good example of observational innovation is the use of biomimicry  which is defined as “a new science that studies Nature’s models and then uses these designs and processes to solve human problems”. Biomimicry has resulted in many new products; one famous example is a swimsuit modeled on the texture of shark skin. These swimsuits reduce drag and eventually were banned from the Olympics . Innovators that use biomimicry would be observational innovators. Antoni Gaudi, who I have written about previously , was an observational innovator and drew many of his architectural ideas from nature. Steve Jobs conceived of important aspects of the Mac computer in part from his interest in calligraphy. Jobs said: “If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in (Reed) college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
On the other hand if an innovator draws inspiration from curiosity in new theories, calculations, data or mathematical modeling, the innovator’s source of inspiration or curiosity is abstract and is different from an observational innovator’s inspiration/curiosity. This type of innovator is what I call an abstract innovator.
Observational (O) Abstract (B)
A good example of abstract innovation was Lockheed’s development of stealth technology for US military aircraft from the 1970s to the present. Denys Overholser, a mathematician working for Lockheed, identified a theory proposed by the Soviet/Russian physicist Pyotr Ufimtsev from 1962, titled Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction and realized that this theory could be used to reduce the radar cross-section of aircraft. In 1971, this book was translated into English by the U.S. Air Force, Foreign Technology Division and the theory played a critical role in the design of American stealth-aircraft F-117 and B-2 . Equations outlined in the theory quantified how a plane’s shape would affect its detectability by radar, its radar cross-section (RCS) and was applied by Lockheed in computer simulations to design the F-117 Nighthawk and later the B-2. I would call Denys Overholser a classic example of an abstract innovator.
Another famous example of an abstract innovator would be Albert Einstein. His famous equation E = mc2, that came from his special relativity theory, relates energy to mass and provided the theoretical underpinning and understanding of fission and fusion processes (i.e. nuclear energy and nuclear weapons).
Conclusion… Using these three dimensions it is possible to describe eight different types of innovators by identifying their innovation working styles, motivations and inspiration/curiosity to better describe and differentiate their innovation personalities. From the disruptive, altruistic, abstract innovator to the adaptive, entrepreneurial, observational innovator, it is possible to classify eight different types of innovators from combinations of the three dimensions.
The eight possible combinations for Innovator Types are listed in the table below. I have also listed the Innovator styles of several famous innovators to illustrate their different innovator types.
So what? Hopefully this kind of analysis/tool will help companies, HR managers, and venture capitalists (to name a few) make better hiring, investing or partnering decisions and help innovators find environments that nurture and respect their particular innovator personality. No innovation classification is more desirable than any other but finding the right place/project or right partner is critical for innovation success. For example, venture capitalists might want to avoid funding altruistic innovators unless they hook them up with someone strongly entrepreneurial. Think of the successful partnership of Steve Jobs with Steve Wozniak to create the Apple I and Apple II. A University might be a better fit for the altruistic or abstract innovator if a corporate environment does not support “blue sky” research. If you are looking for commercially-viable disruptive innovation, then you might want to identify a disruptive innovator with entrepreneurial tendencies and avoid adaptive altruistic innovators. If you are looking for someone to develop line extensions to existing products then an adaptive, entrepreneurial, observational innovator might be the best fit.
Innovators come in many “flavors” and having a tool to recruit the R&D, technology or engineering personnel best suited for your needs will be a step forward for the company as well as the innovator who inevitably becomes unhappy in the wrong job, or when partnered with a person who does not understand his/her innovator personality.
Further Points to Consider… Unfortunately my innovator classification system does not have a dimension which identifies an innovator’s success in executing innovation. In other words we might know an innovator’s “flavor” but we have no way yet of knowing how effective they as an innovator. Maybe a tool could be developed that could identify the innovator “flavor” and get an estimate of how good or successful they might be.
I would appreciate any thoughts and comments to help develop these ideas further.
© Dennis Nelson 2016