‘Quirky’, an NYU professor’s book, deciphers common-traits of innovators. Can your organisation learn from this to innovate better?

In her book ‘Quirky‘, Professor Melissa Schilling of NYU Stern examines the lives of serial-innovators to uncover the common personality traits that helped them see what others did not. She terms them serial-breakthrough innovators, because they came up with ground-breaking innovations repeatedly, not just once. The people she studied include Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Dean Kamen, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. It is a slightly different approach to understand innovators from their lives, rather than looking at their social setting or collaborations.

So what are some of the common-traits she found:-

  • Innovators tend to be obsessive workers who are willing to sacrifice almost everything to the pursuit of their goals. The have an unrelenting drive for achievement derive tremendous pleasure from the work
  • Innovators hold many concepts in their mind at once. This expands the network of associations in their mind, and so they can connect better interesting and unexpected connections between ideas
  • Innovators possess self-efficacy, a confidence in one’s ability to accomplish what they set their minds to. This is important because the nature of breakthrough innovations means most people will be sceptical of their value. As Schilling says, “They are willing to pursue an idea even when everybody else says it’s crazy precisely because they don’t need the affirmation of others. They believe they are right even if you don’t agree”
  • Innovators have a sense of ‘separateness’, which means a general lack of interest in social interaction, rejection of rules, and often isolation from family. This makes it easier for them to think for themselves

So what can your organisation learn from this to innovate better:-

  • Your organisation should encourage a diversity of cognitive and social styles
  • Your organisation should allow employees to maintain a distance from one another, rather than insisting on constant connection. That would spur independent thinking
  • Your organisation should let people come up with solutions on their own and then aggregate those ideas, rather brainstorming in groups
  • Your organisation should cast a wide net whilst looking for new ideas, rather than talking only to specialists in that field. After all, some of the innovators studied in this book were outsiders to their field
  • Your organisation should imbibe employees with a sense of purpose, to drive them to think

Try it out now! Your organisation need not find an innovator if it can make itself the innovator instead!

Based on an article by James Surowiecki, published in the Strategy+Business website of PwC Strategy&

Read more about this fascinating book here

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