We tend to think innovators should fit a certain profile, one that looks suspiciously close to the innovators we most admire, write about, and study. We’ve seen Jeff Bezos with his clean-shaven head and shades or Steve Job’s signature black turtleneck and jeans. Richard Branson upset corporate suit culture with his relaxed, casual attire. It may seem that a world class innovator is supposed to challenge the status quo, care little about what others think of them, and act like a larger-than-life character.
But the truth is actually far different. If you are not the kind of person who likes to break things, wear hoodies or black turtlenecks, or who likes to jump out of planes, worry not. The habits and profiles of true innovators are likely to look a lot more like you.
I studied every academic paper I could find that showed a statistically significant correlation between an individual’s character traits and their success at innovating. These studies focused particularly on intrapreneurship because, research shows, intrapreneurs are the source of 70% of society’s most impactful innovations.
Six traits emerge. They paint a picture of an innovator who is surprisingly different than the person you might expect. In fact, they may look a lot like what you see in the mirror.
How employee innovators differ from entrepreneurs
Intrapreneurs aren’t just entrepreneurs who get their paychecks from a larger organization. The specific challenges you face while trying to launch innovative new ideas at work differ in a few significant ways:
- You likely have two (or more) jobs, not one. You’ll need to continue your ongoing responsibilities while setting aside time and focus to pursue new opportunities.
- You have one investor (your company), not forty. Entrepreneurs can shop their idea around to different investors to seek funding. You have only one funder to impress, and you’ll need to understand the types of ideas your company will support, choose the best option, and pitch it to them perfectly.
- You may not be involved in the start to finish process of your business idea. Entrepreneurs lead the effort from conception to realization. You’ll probably run one leg of a relay race and pass the baton.
- You can scale more quickly. Entrepreneurs might move nimbly to launch ideas, but they often struggle to scale. It may take the intrapreneur longer to get their idea approved, but then they have the resources to grow it much faster.
What it takes to successfully launch ideas
What is it about the best employee innovators that make them successful? Research supports that, first and foremost, they are people who seize opportunities. They do so by doing four things well:
- Discover new opportunities
- Evaluate and choose which opportunities to pursue
- Act autonomously to move on those opportunities
- Find the capital and talents needed and rally those resources
What kind of person does it take to do those things well? What makes a successful innovator, and can their qualities be learned and emulated? A few of today’s leaders in innovation offer some crucial advice:
Research shows that traditional entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs share three critical attributes:
1. Innovativeness: They explore new approaches and solutions rather than following the accepted way of doing things. According to David Schonthal, clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University and coauthor of the upcoming book, The Human Element, this is the most important quality. “One’s ability to spot opportunities and new paths, especially in the face of constraint, will always be a durable competitive advantage,” he says.
2. Market and competitive awareness: They keep the pulse on their competitors, customers, and industry and have a drive to help their company win. World-renowned business advisor, author, and speaker, Ram Charan, explains “There are three questions [business leaders] are asked continuously: What is the future opportunity? What is it [customers] need? And what is it they do not have? After re-evaluating and discussing, they decide where to devote their energy and where to take risks.”
3. Proactivity: They take action on their own before anyone asks or tells them to. These individuals view challenging events as opportunities rather than obstacles. Successful intrapreneur, Jean Feiwel of MacMillan Publishing, told me, “It’s not that I don’t see the problems that could happen, it’s that I see more of the opportunity.”
So in these three ways, entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are similar. But the same body of research shows successful intrapreneurs exhibit three other characteristics that differentiate them from entrepreneurs and make them uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of innovating within an organization.
4. Strategic approach to risk: It’s no surprise that entrepreneurs are risk seekers. Just like Elon Musk sold PayPal and invested nearly all of his wealth to launch SpaceX, they’re willing to risk their capital and reputation on the innovations they believe in. But internal innovators think differently—they are actually very deliberate about the risks they take. They excel at analyzing their surroundings and then taking calculated risks.
In his new book, David Schonthal offers advice on persuading organizations to accept risk. “One way to overcome the ‘anxiety of the new’ (risk) is to shrink the size of the problem you are addressing,” he says. He shares the story of Public Digital, a UK-based consulting firm that helps large, legacy organizations transition to the digital era. “How does a firm like Public Digital get legacy organizations to modernize? Their secret is to start small. Rather than asking organizations about their goals for ‘digital transformation,’ which implies sweeping change, Public Digital consultants ask them only about the next important thing they would like to accomplish. Then they use that small project as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of taking a new, digital-first approach.”
5. Political acumen: A study of 100 “serial innovators” found that the key trait that separated successful internal innovators from frustrated ones was that they view the political challenge as an exciting part of the problem-solving process. I interviewed author and corporate innovation expert, Tendayi Viki, who warns against taking a disruptor or rebel approach. “A lot of corporate innovators adopt those behaviors from the entrepreneurship culture and bring them into the corporate space, but it doesn’t really work. It creates unnecessary hurdles.” He suggests keeping it simple: “Create something customers like and sell the idea. You don’t need to add extra hurdles of people that are actively rooting for you to fail because you carry yourself around like Elon Musk… It’s more important to be collaborative; build bridges and that increases the likelihood of success.”
6. Motivation: Even the greatest internal innovators will face significant barriers along the path of innovation. Sometimes these barriers are so discouraging that people simply give up. Others keep going, finding a way around each obstacle. Successful innovators draw upon their passion, purpose, and drive to pursue their ideas. Performance expert, Lindsay McGregor, breaks down an employee’s ‘total motivation’ into three direct motives: “The play that you feel in your work, the purpose you find in it, and the potential you see for outcomes like career advancement.” Improve your motivation score by focusing on these three areas.
These six qualities may not be obvious at first glance, but they make all the difference in whether an employee has the potential to generate and execute their best creative ideas. To bolster your chances of success, carefully consider the extent to which you embrace each of these characteristics and determine which areas you might improve.