It turns out that we all have different ways in which we innovate. If you can identify your default style you can use it to your advantage by putting yourself into situations where that style is most useful. And if you're an entrepreneur or work with entrepreneurs, you're going to be innovating a lot - how you do so is determined by your style.
Last weekend my daughter wanted me to play Lego with her. She's 6.
We have a big box of Lego, the result of several years of mashing up pieces from lots of different gifts, some of it is handed down, it's got a bit of everything.
"Daddy, please can you build me a zoo?", she asked.
Now there's a challenge. I could remember that we had 2 Lego crocodiles but other than that we had no "zoo" set to build from. We were going to have to build it from whatever we could find.
With the challenge set, we first set about finding every single green piece we could find. Plus some browns. After all, zoos are mainly natural colours we figured.
Then we started building. I had no idea how this zoo would turn out. It was simply a case of experimenting with a few base pieces and building, tinkering as we went. It was fun. My daughter made a wolf and found a parrot to go with the crocodiles.
Given our resources, I was surprised and pleased with the end result. My daughter was very happy and modified the resulting structure to add her own personality adding odd pieces here and there.
What we didn't do was imagine/envision and architect a master plan before we started. We just got started and figured it out as we went. Nor did we modify an existing structure. We just had a go. We tested, iterated and learned as we went.
The four styles of innovation
A friend was talking about a training course he'd been on at work where they explored the four styles of innovation. He pointed out that my Lego building style was "experimental" and that my daughters' was "modifying". The other two dominant styles are "visioning" and "exploring".
The styles are explained fully at innovationstyles.com it's definitely worth a read. (Don't be put off by the c. 2004 website design). If you pay a fee you can do a survey to discover your own style.
They explain that the styles are determined from two main dimensions...
Are you stimulated and inspired to innovate by
How do you approach innovation?
My "experimental" style is a combination of being inspired by facts, details and analysis and approaching innovation from a broad, perceptive learning orientated angle.
The personal survey results were very helpful. It made me realise that I am weakest at envisioning the future but strongest at figuring out how to get there. That means my ideal job is one where I partner with a visionary person who has imagined what the future could be and I help figure out how to get there. I'm not a visionary. I look at the resources I have a go figure what I could make from it. Try stuff out, have a go.
It turns out that this has been the signature of my career to date; getting stuck into the detail of how, working in early stage organisations that have strong visions with a large appetite for change. It also explains why I'm drawn to lean startup methods (test, iterate and learn).
Implications for entrepreneurs
If we accept that there are different styles of innovation, we can start to think about what types of environment suit different styles.
(To be clear - everyone has a mix of styles, it's just probable that they'll have a dominant one. This isn't a simple binary framework. Like all models it will have some fluidity when applied to real life).
Some projects would not come to exist without the imagination of their creator. New markets are made possible by those that imagine them to be. These are the visionaries with bold ideas disrupting the world. Uber perhaps?
Some opportunities are found by modifying an existing business model and launching in an adjacent sector or market. These are the modifiers. Rocket Internet perhaps?
Sometimes it's a question of exploring new forms of technology and then once found, finding a great application for them. These are the explorers. Maybe an example of this is when Steve Jobs visited Xerox PARC and found a computer mouse and saw that it had a great future in personal computing.
Then, there are the times when you just start with a small concept and test it, find something that works and once you have, keep building. These are the experimenters. Twitter started this way.
So you see - if we know our own style, we can all innovate, in our own way. We all compliment each other and strong teams will have a mixture of styles.
If you play with Lego, how do you build?