What makes an innovator an innovator?

Why is it that some people just can’t help rocking the boat – stepping out of their day-to-day to say “why not?” and “what if?” – when others are perfectly happy with the way things are?

To answer that question, we’ve been working with the team at the innovation company FourSight on a research project since the beginning of the year. We sat down with Managing Partner Sarah Thurber and BridgePoint Effect CEO and FourSight Certified Trainer Janice Francisco to find out what they’ve learned so far.

First, give us a little background on what FourSight is.

Sarah: We’re an innovation company dedicated to the science of good thinking. We equip innovation champions with research-based creativity and innovation tools, assessments and training designs proven to help individuals, teams and organizations solve complex problems more effectively.

FourSight is a framework, a creative thinking system, that includes an assessment, process, tools and training. Participants gain both personal awareness and process awareness. The eventual outcome is your team or organization share a common language, tools and process for universal problem solving. You become better able to handle ambiguous challenges as an individual, as a team, and as an organization.

Many of our innovators have run into you at our conferences, but for anyone who hasn’t could you give a little background on our project? What have you been doing, and why did you choose Innov8rs as a partner?

Sarah: We saw a remarkable opportunity to form a cognitive profile on who is attracted to innovation in organizations. Who’s doing it and why? We gave the FourSight thinking profile to everyone who registered for the Innov8rs conferences from Tel Aviv to Atlanta to Madrid to L.A. and to Sydney. We were able get not only country-specific results but also global results on who innovators are in organizations. We collected more than 350 profiles in four continents, and found some really distinct profiles emerging.

Janice: We work with individual clients in Canada and the U.S. and hear their concerns and challenges around driving innovation through an organization. This was an opportunity to see whether we find the same sorts of challenges in other countries. And it turns out that what we’re experiencing in our own countries around innovation take-up, and the frustrations and the challenges that organizations are having, appears to be mirrored identically in the results that we’re seeing as well as the exchanges we’re having with the conference participants.

Sarah: We’ve heard over and over: innovation is hard, it isn’t working in my organization, I’m having trouble getting my budgets, I can’t convince leadership to support and sustain this innovation effort.

Research moves us beyond our anecdotal experience. It helps us understand which of those things is anecdotal and which is endemic to trying to get innovation done in organizations. We’ve found some things that are global, universal and pretty profound.

There are so many “experts” and gurus in the innovation space now talking about what is and what isn’t working, and giving their thoughts on why. We were excited to partner with you because of your research focus. Can you tell us a little about what you’ve found so far?

Sarah: First of all it’s important to understand what FourSight the assessment measures. It measures cognitive diversity and identifies thinking preferences, otherwise known as thinking styles.

We’ve identified four. Clarifiers need access to facts, information, proof. Developers need time to evaluate and optimize. Implementers seek ways to take action. Ideators see the big picture and want to give ideas.

We hypothesized that we would find a large number of Ideators in the innovation space They are sometimes called “possibilitarians”, and have a preference for idea generation, new ideas, variety, visions of the future.

Janice: They’re people who like LOADS of options.

Sarah: In an organizational context where there’s a lot of protocol – standard operating procedures, button down processes – there are people who love the opportunity to look at something new and original, to delve into unique, unexplored places that require new thinking. So our hypothesis was that those sorts of people would be attracted to innovation.

Janice: We wanted to test our knowledge around making it easier for organizations to have conversations and drive innovation forward. Are there typical stall-outs that are occurring in organizations? And might those stall-outs be caused by the thinking preferences people are bringing to the table?

Are you saying that the thinking preference Ideators have might be a hindrance, rather than a benefit, to innovation?

Sarah: Not necessarily. In this same period, we published research examining globally what occupations attract which kind of thinking profile. We found some interesting patterns. You’ll find a lot of Clarifiers in finance. You’ll find a lot of Developers in engineering. You’ll find a lot of Salespeople in implementation. And you’ll find a lot of Ideators who appreciate and are involved in innovation.

Think about the implications – people in the organization that don’t like protocol and feel hemmed in by standard operating procedures, who are looking for variety and looking for something new, move into this innovation space and happily explore ideas. But once they try to move those ideas back into the organization? That’s a bridge that’s hard to cross. You’ve got a lot of Ideators trying to win budget, win resources, win credibility, from engineers who aren’t buying it or from finance people who don’t understand what the ROI is because there’s no way to prove it.

So there are communication breakdowns built in to these cognitive profiles. And that’s something that, left unexplored or unknown, becomes a constant frustration. But once surfaced and understood it actually becomes an access point to moving past some of these barriers. That’s what’s exciting about this research.

Janice: To your point, we do find that some of the frustration Innovators experience stems from their blindness as to how their preference for thinking through all aspects of innovation is taxing the organization. We hear it over and over again at every conference: Innovation is hard. It’s tough. Nobody understands me. Everybody hates me.

We help Ideators understand where their desire for innovation sits within the thinking, the preferences, and all of the other directions in their organization. Because innovation is so collaborative, everybody who is involved in that journey is going to contribute something by way of how they prefer to look at challenges, how they think. So if we can help innovators better understand the value they’re bringing to the table and how they can help others contribute value, contribute thinking, or work through issues in a way that’s more comfortable to their own thinking preferences, we end up having an easier time of it.

Innovation will always be hard because it changes things. What we see in the organizations we work with is when we normalize language, when we help people understand their thinking preferences and show them how to interact with this process as they move through an innovation journey, it becomes easier. Now we have a better view of what everybody needs and how we can make this idea come to fruition.

There’s a lot of talk at Innov8rs conferences about needing ideas to drive innovation. And we have other people saying hold on, it’s not just ideas we need – but we don’t have anybody explaining, concretely, what else do we need? What do we do with the ideas and how can we make them more valuable to the organization?

Sarah: It’s probably more useful to think of innovation not as an idea sprint but as a relay. You’ve got people who understand the challenge we’re up against, and then other people coming up with ideas to address that challenge, and other people engineering those ideas so that they are workable for the organization, and still other people moving those ideas into action. Passing that baton all the way through the process is what makes it work. If you think innovation is just about ideas, you may run one leg of that journey really well. But if you don’t understand that the breakdown often happens in the pass-off, you’re going to be bested by other teams.

Are we thinking about innovation in the right way, in general?

Janice: At all the Innov8rs conferences I attended, I didn’t hear anyone define what innovation is. We talk about innovation in very general terms. So we have everybody doing innovation without any sort of common unifying means of understanding what that really is. And in each organization, how they look at innovation and what they want to get from innovation is going to be different. So there’s a contextual nature – innovation is not one size fits all. How each organization creates value is going to be unique in in their own market and based on the challenges that they’re facing.

There’s a perception out there that if I engage in a particular kind of methodology, I’m therefore going to be innovative. Right off the bat, we’re missing something when we think of innovation this way.

How does FourSight help us get out of that fixed mindset and start thinking more effectively?

Janice: Here’s how I describe it to my own clients: it’s a standard operating procedure for thinking through all of the aspects associated with an innovation.

I looked at FourSight many years ago because I was working on major organizational change and transformation projects. They would come to me saying help, we’ve got this big problem and if we don’t fix it we can’t move forward. So I’d come in as a meeting facilitator, and I was dumbstruck because most of the time, the solutions people were coming up with were the same old obvious ones. At the end of it I’d think: Why did we pull 40 people in a room to try and solve a tough challenge when all we did was generate the same thinking and same solutions we’ve already done?

Innovation requires us to think differently. It’s much more complex. We need to bring a different kind of thinking to the table. What better way to start doing that by understanding how you like to engage in that process? And then having a better understanding of how the people you work with like to engage in that process? It gives us a way to manage ourselves, each other, the organization, and our stakeholders.

We’re going to have much better conversations and get much better solutions.

FourSight’ s research has found that individuals engage in what we call a universal process for solving challenges. This is just what we do instinctively as humans. We know how to do this but we don’t always bring creative thinking to the table with it. FourSight works with that instinctual nature we all have. It makes it language based, explicit, logical. It makes it easily adoptable. It makes it normal. And it integrates that with creative thinking.

Sarah: In every stage the creativity doesn’t just come with the ideas, the creativity comes in understanding how to look at the challenge. Creativity comes in understanding how to engineer, optimize and improve the solution. Creativity comes in how to get people to adopt it. It really runs throughout the whole process. And the more deliberate creativity you can infuse into your innovation processes – Agile, Lean, design thinking, whatever they are – the more novel and valuable the results you get on the other side.

I think you were right when you said that many people at the conferences don’t feel understood, or even liked, by the rest of their organization. How do your methods help clarify and address those frustrations?

Sarah: Certain profiles naturally like working with, and feel affinity for, particular profiles. Clarifiers like to work with Clarifiers and maybe Developers. Developers like to work with Developers. Implementers like to work with Implementers. Ideators are the only group who likes to work with everybody but notice nobody likes to work with them. So at an individual level, you’ve got this bad feeling: why don’t people like me and like my idea?

And when you globalize that in a team, you get the same dynamic. When you globalize it in the organization, the same dynamic. So it’s helpful to get a sense of how other people perceive working with you, because once you understand it you can manage it.

Janice: Innovation is a team sport. And let’s look at what happens on teams, typically on sports teams. There are rules. There are positions everybody needs to play. We know what the game is. We know what the field is. We know what the boundaries are around what we need to do. And everybody understands what their role is in getting success, scoring a goal. When people don’t play by those rules, or don’t pay attention to what they’re bringing to the table, or don’t trust their teammate to play their position properly, the team is dysfunctional.

The same thing happens at work. Through research we know that if you are in an organization that is attempting to build a creative culture and promote innovation, lack of trust and openness on the team or in the organization means you’ll have a lot less success.

FourSight helps teams figure out how they are going to work together. When we’re teaching the creative thinking system to teams, we’re not just going in to teach a course. We’re helping them understand how to change their behaviors on a day-to-day basis. FourSight provides a structure to make that possible, to build respect for the diversity we’re each bringing to the table. We don’t have to worry about trust anymore. We know we’re engaged in a process of thinking. We know we have to move our thinking through a number of different steps. We know that there are different kinds of thinking needed in each step. And we know that everyone, regardless of their thinking preferences, can engage in these different kinds of thinking.

So we give people a process and tools to help them have that flexibility. Pretty quickly, people understand: Okay, this is the thinking process we’re going through. Here’s where I have to step up to the plate and play the game. Here’s what I need from you to support me as I do that. And we start to understand that if we follow and trust the thinking process, we don’t have to be suspicious about what each other is doing anymore. We can focus on getting the work done.

You’re going to be with us in Miami. What are you hoping to discover there, and why should our innovators engage with you?

Janice: If you choose to use the creative thinking system it can easily become a modus operandi and a very flexible tool to navigate through any sort of innovation challenge you’re dealing with. It tucks in very nicely with design thinking, with Agile, Lean, whatever it is you’re doing. And it brings a layer of understanding and practicality so you can move innovation forward, and then sustain innovation in your organization.

I hope that individuals who are passionate about driving innovation through their organization want to do this assessment. It’s going to provide insight to who they are and give them options for making it easier to do the thing that they’re passionate about.

Sarah: You mentioned gurus before; FourSight is research-based. We aren’t trying to compete with other processes. We augment and catalyze them.

What appears to be emerging from our research with Innov8rs so far is a particular profile and combination of profiles that are powerful for getting new things started, and that have certain liabilities for sustainable organizational tolerance. I’m looking forward to seeing the data we collected in Sydney to see if it’s consistent with what we’ve seen around the world so far, and hoping to collect more in Miami.

It could really help us unlock this conundrum of how to get innovation to succeed in organizations.