What does it mean to be innovative?

“Innovation cuts across all sectors of life and all aspects of a company,” says Tucker Marion, chair of the entrepreneurship and innovation programs within Northeastern’s D’Amore McKim School of Business. For this reason, organizations—and even individuals who innovate effectively—have the potential to make an impact on the landscape of their industry, just by being willing to take risks and learn from their mistakes.

While Marion says individuals should feel motivated to hone their innovation skills through training, he also acknowledges that a few common qualities exist among those who have already embraced innovation in their lives and workplaces. Below we explore six common qualities that effective innovators share.

1. They Think Outside of the Box

To make positive changes to the landscape of an organization or industry through innovation, professionals must be willing to push past the confines of expectation. In fact, Marion considers “the ability to release creativity within an organization and be exposed to new sources of ideas [while] helping employees develop new ideas themselves” vital in the process of breaking down existing barriers to achieve new and exciting opportunities. In the same regard, those who are innovative are risk-takers; they aren’t afraid to make bold moves even if that means running the risk of failing.

2. They Have a Deep Understanding of the User

Marion also identifies the importance of a user-centric mindset in innovation. “Great innovation efforts can be very simple,” he says. “But they have to be focused on the user. Technology might enhance that experience when it can, but it’s all about the consumer’s experience—whether that’s a person, a dog, or even a zoo animal.” This, he explains, is part of what makes Apple so innovative. They develop their products with intuitiveness and customer experience in mind and create tools that can integrate with one another in a way that makes their users’ lives easier. “Companies that…focus on a user tend to stand out from the pack,” he says.

3. They Are Educated on Their Company’s History of Innovation

Though it may seem counterintuitive for innovators who are looking to change their company’s futures to look back, Marion strongly believes that, to move forward with a clear path, innovators must first take the time to understand the past. “Companies should realize [that] their pasts, their current situations, and where things are going in the future are intertwined,” he says, noting that an understanding of all of these aspects can provide the kind of “broad perspective” necessary to be effectively innovative.

4. They Can Narrow Their View When Needed

Alongside an ability to take the bigger picture into account, people who are successfully innovative can also drill down and look closely at a specific idea or issue when needed, as well. Marion refers to this as being “a T-shaped person,” with both a broad scope of talents and the ability to focus in on a specific area of business as needed. Though not all innovators are born with this unique combination of skills, Marion believes professionals can hone this process through hands-on experience and exposure to real-world scenarios.

5. They Have Strong Interpersonal Skills

Also known as “soft skills,” interpersonal skills are critical for success in the workplace. Though these skills can range from time management to creativity,  innovative professionals embrace a certain combination which allows them to thrive.

  • Collaboration: Innovators recognize the power of teamwork and acknowledge that successful innovation rarely happens alone. Instead, these individuals know how to embrace the skills and perspectives of those around them in pursuit of positive change.
  • Critical Thinking: Innovation relies heavily on one’s ability to think strategically about a situation or problem and come up with original yet plausible solutions.
  • Leadership: Perhaps the most important skill among innovators—especially within a larger organization—is leadership. Being able not only to compose a team, but also manage them and inspire them to embrace change is key in the process of innovation.
  • Communication: Successful innovators must be able to not only come up with new ideas—or new applications of existing ideas—but to also effectively communicate to coworkers, investors, and consumers exactly why this change is needed.

6. They are Lifelong Learners

Although there are many traits that successful innovators possess, there is only one trait you really need to be innovative: a continuous desire to learn and improve. To accomplish this, innovative individuals must be willing to self-reflect, identify the spaces in which their skills or experiences fall short, and take the necessary steps to fill those gaps— whether they’re in their knowledge of their organization’s history, their personal soft skills, or even their ability to take risks and learn from the outcomes.

This post is adapted from an article by Ashley DiFranza for Northeastern’s Graduate Programs blog.  

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