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What Does an Innovator Look Like?

February 7, 2012, 9:58 AM

Facebook’s IPO has innovation and entrepreneurship in the news. And the face of Facebook is Mark Zuckerberg. The 27-year old Zuckerberg reinforces the image that many, if not most people, have come to believe is what an innovator looks like – techie and young.

Youth seems to be the major characteristic that dominates the mythological profile of an innovator. Noted venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (who is 57 years old) is quoted in the Washington Post as saying “People under 35 are the people who make change happen…People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.”

But do birthdays or how many you have had matter in creating new ideas that lead to real innovation? While many may think the young dominate the development of new ideas –it may be surprising, then, that a 2009 study by the Kauffman Foundation revealed that each year, from 1996 to 2007, Americans ages 55-64 had a rate of entrepreneurial activity close to a third greater than those aged 20-34.  Even in tech – the average age of successful technology company founders in 2008 was 39. That’s higher than the US median age. Even iconic Steve Job’s culture-changing products came after he turned 45.

So if birthdays or how few you have had do not necessarily contribute to being an innovator what characteristics might? Vivek Wadhwa led a study exploring this question identifies three. Generally innovators turned entrepreneurs 1) have ideas for real problems; 2) want to build wealth well before ‘retirement’; and, 3) like being their own bosses.

Here are a few ageless characteristics that I would add:

  • Innovators are…a little off. It is often forgotten that ‘thinking outside the box’ is deviant behavior. Deviance, by definition, is outside the norm, but it is often that ‘off’ behavior that contributes to thinking that becomes a new normal tomorrow. Because behaving within the average is, well, just average.
  • Innovators look across markets, behaviors and systems. While businesses must be well focused to execute with efficiency, the capacity to see differently requires looking across domains, e.g., how might consumer health behaviors provide insights in retirement planning behaviors? Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics Richard Feynman observed that looking across domains and cultivating the disciplined capacity to take another point of view was key to creative thinking.
  • Innovators are inspired, not industrialized. Certainly there are standard techniques to collect observations, test concepts and winnow down the number of competing ideas but innovators creatively play with problems and new ideas. Test beds, field studies, even games (see MIT AgeLab’s I-CoDE) are all ways innovators seek to better understand consumer behaviors as well as stated and unstated needs.
  • Innovators are true believers. An innovator has to have faith that they can make something better – a better product, service or even government policy. Failing, and failing often, is part of innovation, so a true innovator has to be confident that eventually they can and will succeed.

Angelina Gennis contributed to this post.


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What Does an Innovator Look...

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