Innovation inherently involves uncertainty, creativity and a special mindset that not all people have or are willing to embrace. What distinguishes innovative individuals from others?

Esade Entrepreneurship Institute

This article is based on research by Lotta Hassi

In a study published in the International Journal of Innovation Management, Esade innovation expert Lotta Hassi and Satu Rekonen of Aalto University investigated how individual characteristics promote experimentation behaviour.

"Failure and unexpected outcomes are inherent in experimental innovation. Our study demonstrates that positive adaptation to adversity and not being defeated by challenges are among the key characteristics of innovative people," state the authors.

The key characteristics of innovative people

1. Continuous reflection

Participants with innovative behaviour adopted continuous reflection – that is, they were open to questioning their first idea and the direction of the project. Through continuous reflection, participants were able to notice new pieces of information that were potentially important for the project, like a radar endlessly scanning the environment.

2. Unattached exploration

When participants were strongly attached to an idea, they were less open to letting go and trying other things. Those who were more prone to innovation were able to postpone fixation on an idea and stay open to exploring different possible directions before closing in on a single option.

Participants who were more prone to innovation were able to postpone fixation on an idea

3. Iterating between abstract and concrete thinking

In the experiments, employees had difficulty going from abstract concepts to concrete details – most individuals were strong mainly in one mode of thinking or the other. However, those who were able to move fluently between conceptual and practical thinking, maintaining the connection between the two, were more prepared to identify uncertainties in the idea and design a good experiment setup.

4. Action-oriented

Another driver of innovative individuals was their action-oriented behaviour. This personality trait allowed them to move from intellectual work to practical ideas, which proved fundamental when building a prototype and running the experiment.

Action-oriented individuals pushed their teams to move from planning the experiment setup to building prototypes and to run experiments early.

5. Opportunity-focused

While some individuals only saw dead ends, opportunity-focused participants were able to see opportunities in different situations and shared with their teams several possible routes for the project – this played a key role in moving the team forward into experiments. This type of mindset promoted innovative behaviour also when unexpected opportunities arose.

People who adapt positively to adversity are more prone to innovative behaviours

6. Mental resilience

The study demonstrates that people who adapt positively to adversity and don't let challenges defeat them are also more prone to innovative behaviours.

Mental resilience allows people to take in the new information in negative feedback, accept it in a constructive way and remain operative. This also means being able to let go of an idea once it is proven unsuccessful and continuing to explore other solutions.

7. Intellectual humility

The field data revealed that intellectual humility was also at the core of innovation. The more innovation-driven individuals had a mindset that was humble in the face of new information and they were open to learning by acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge.

Intellectual humility also allows openly sharing feedback that is discouraging, which may open up new avenues for developing alternative solutions.

8. Courage

When running the experiments, the individuals had to submit their unfinished ideas for early evaluation by users or other relevant stakeholders and receive instant feedback.

These situations required participants to show courage and step out of their comfort zone, as they did not know what the response would be. The only way to find out was to place themselves in a vulnerable situation, facing the risk of refusal and failure.

9. Sensitivity towards uncertainties

In the study, most individuals experienced difficulties with being sensitive towards uncertainties. The participants required constant help from the tutors to notice uncertainties before moving on to designing experiments.

The more innovation-driven individuals were open to learning by acknowledging the limits of their own knowledge

The temptation to move directly to the realisation of the idea was great and individuals were not able to identify uncertainties. With the tutors' support, various uncertainties were found, and the next experiment resulted in changes to the solution.

10. Designing valuable experiments

When designing the experimentation setup, participants struggled to design valuable experiments – that is, to keep them small, fast and focused. In tutoring sessions, participants were trained to develop the ability to identify the smallest and fastest action that will produce the required learning and move forward.

11. Extracting learning

The field data showed that participants experienced difficulties in extracting learning from the conducted experiments. To promote innovative behaviour, individuals must pay attention to unexpected information or events, meaningful comments and how feedback could be used to improve the original idea.

12. Implementing learning and idea adaptation

Individuals more prone to innovation had the ability to extract meaningful learning from an experiment and implement that learning back into the project to adapt the idea and make it evolve in a meaningful way.

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