The Five Habits of Great Innovators

I’ve studied history’s most creative strategists–from Napoleon Bonaparte to John Boyd–and compared their thinking habits with those of their modern peers–Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus or Tesla CEO Elon Musk. I have found five thinking habits that stand out.


This week I am preparing for a presentation to the Columbia Business School Alumni Club of New York, titled “The Five Habits of Great Innovators.” The event is open to the public, but you must register to join. (Watch my blogcast on this topic.)


For more than a decade I’ve studied history’s most creative strategists–from Napoleon Bonaparte to John Boyd–and compared their thinking habits with those of their modern peers–Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus or Tesla CEO Elon Musk. I have found five thinking habits that stand out:

  1. Mental time travel
  2. Seeing the interconnected system
  3. Frame-shifting
  4. Disruptive mindset
  5. Influence

Mental Time Travel

As Albert Einstein once said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Interview someone who has had a major impact on their industry or the world and bring them back to the early days when they built belief in their cause. Ask them what was going through their mind, and they are likely to take you along a mental time machine that starts at the beginning and then fast-forwards to a desired future. These “outthinkers” are able to hold their minds at that hypothetical moment, exploring everything that would need to be true for their vision to be realized.

Cognitive scientists call this “mental time travel” and believe it serves as a key distinction between humans and animals. Most animals show no ability for imaging future states but most humans exhibit this capacity by the age of four. I believe that the greater capacity you have for “mental time travel,” the better chance you have for impacting the world.


Seeing the Interconnected System

When Scipio Africanus took on the seemingly impossible task of defeating Hannibal in 205 B.C., he resisted the head-on assault that other Roman military leaders had tried before him. Instead he took in a bigger picture, and looked not just at the players but at their inter-dependencies.

By understanding the system, Scipio Africanus saw a master-stroke that would weaken his enemy with minimal effort. Rather than confront Hannibal head on, he turned his men to the ancient city of New Carthage (now called Cartagena), took the city, and thereby cut off Hannibal from his chief supply route.

In the West, we might call this “systems thinking” or talk of the “butterfly effect.” The Taoists began speaking of this ability five millennia ago, advocating the point of seeing the interconnectedness of all things.

As I mentioned in my last blog, “outthinkers” seem to think in terms of a system, often a simplified one that keeps them focused on what is most important. The CEO of Knoa software, for example, follows a four-step process for building a business: get a customer, make them happy, get a referral, and repeat.


Regardless of how far you are willing to take this–from building a simple map to embracing the Taoist view that everything is connected–it is worth taking a pause before you begin problem-solving to look at the system, looking at what depends on what, building out the web until you see clearly the fronts of your battle, the levers you must turn, to realize your vision.


I was running late, but I could not find my car keys. I looked in all the usual places but they were simply gone. Desperate for ideas, I dropped to the floor and looked around. They were right there, under the couch.

Sometimes just changing your perspective reveals the answer.

Innovative thinkers shift their perspectives more often, drawing from a more diverse set of experiences, than the rest of us. They are able to handle more complexity and ambiguity because they recognize more patterns. Grandmaster chess players, for example, recognize ten times as many situations as expert chess players. By bringing more perspectives to their game they are more likely to see that winning move when their opponent freezes in confusion.


I’ve found that if you can shift a group’s perspectives seven times on a single problem, they can produce between four and ten times as many possible solutions to that problem.

Disruptive Mindset

How did Rosetta Stone emerge from relative anonymity to become the leading provider of language-learning software in less than ten years? They saw the white space–the opportunity that no one with the capability would be willing to pursue. They saw that technology would be better used to replicate the immersive, natural experience of learning a language than as a tool to replace the classroom. They knew that existing language-learning players were too invested in the old classroom-based model to pursue this opportunity quickly.

It is this same thinking that transformed Sony from a maker of electric teapots into an electronics giant, or RIM into the leading smartphone maker, or Google into … Google.

“Outthinkers” think not just about what customers will want but also about what competitors will not pursue. Understanding both allows them to see the white space, the uncontested territory.


The higher up I go when working with a good organization, the more often I hear conversations about the competition, what they will and won’t do, what they will and won’t defend. It is not enough to know your customer. You must grow equally acquainted with your competition and then focus on the few unique opportunities your competition will not defend or respond intelligently to.


The fifth habit is a big one. Innovators are nothing more than dreamers if they cannot convince others to live out their dreams. It is only when others believe in and act upon their dream that it becomes reality.

I don’t have space here to dig into the key aspects of influence–I believe great innovators do at least four things differently here–but if there is one thing that stands out more starkly for me it is that “outthinkers” step into the minds they are seeking to change. They speak in the same language, use the same metaphors, appeal to the same values of the people they are seeking to win the support of.

The rest of us do the opposite. Rather than stepping across the line into “enemy” territory, we stand on our side of the line, use our language, metaphors, and values to lure people over to our side.


There are five specific habits that innovators seem to have in common. If you are willing to retrain yourself to think in these terms and adopt these habits, then you too will achieve true success.

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society