Although most businesses want their people to enthusiastically burst with new ideas, they use very limited ways to create innovation. Brainstorming, team-building or a "best idea" competition are the most common solutions. They are also the least working ones.
The problem is that although using these solutions may help you generate a few new ideas, they don't create innovation culture and don't attract and develop innovative people. Innovation is not something that's created from the air - it's based on observing what's around, being curious, noticing the subtleties and underlying trends, and connecting the dots to get new insights. For example, Dyson bagless vacuum cleaners were created thanks to borrowing cyclone technology from lumberyard and applying it to vacuum cleaners, which solved the issue of the first dust blocking the vacuum cleaner tube and reducing its sucking power.
There are three key qualities of an innovator, and observing is one of them. Innovators have it wired in their DNA.
They can't choose to switch it on and off, because you never know what you are going to notice next. Observing often means you need more time to think and make sense of what they've seen. It might slow down your reaction, or if there are too many things going on around you, you may get overwhelmed, as your brain receives too much information (try observing people in the rush hour near the major train station and you'll understand what I'm talking about). It also means that you need time and space to observe and think without being distracted by micromanagement, office chit chat, incoming emails, endless reports etc. Do many of your employees have this luxury?
The second key quality of a top innovator is the ability to think different.
Innovation is often born out of diversity, but many businesses misunderstand what diversity is. They say they want diverse people (i.e. people with a different skin colour, gender or background), but they don't want those who don't "fit in". Innovation is about being different, abnormal, unconventional, and it's created by people who (guess what) are different, abnormal, unconventional and often challenge the status quo. They ask a lot of questions. They try different things in the office, like moving the furniture, or changing seats, just to see how things might be different. Now, not every innovator is a revolutionary willing to blow up the whole system, but most of them do have issues with "fitting in", even if they try hard. They aren't comfortable.
The third key quality of an innovator is the ability to use both parts of the brain in order to tap into the unknown.
Innovation often happens when neither the question nor the answer are given. In the age of big data, we are tempted to back up all our decision with numbers - but unfortunately, data can't always help. Any statistician would tell you that data can't show you the causality, but only the correlation, and that it is meaningless unless you know, which question to want to answer using it - and often during the innovation process the question is not defined.
Most innovative people will tell you they first get a feeling they can't rationalize - they might get some information from a variety of channels (visual, hearing, touch, gut feeling etc). Our body is full of nervous cells, and it gets as much information (or even more) as our brain.
In most businesses, however, basing your decisions on gut feeling is not encouraged, to say the least. Yet in the situations when you can't fully use the data it can be very helpful. Made.com, a UK online design furniture retailer, understood this principle really well and created an innovative culture that's driven by a combination of data analysis and experiments. If they launch a product similar to the one they did in the past, they'd use data to make predictions, but if it's something completely different, they would try to launch a few in small batches based on intuition. It doesn't cost much money and effort and allows for more flexibility in case things don't work out. Having small flexible teams experimenting with things and using both senses and two parts of the brain works best for this company. However, to be able to use you intuition, you need to trust it and be encouraged by people around you. Is this the case in your business?
To summarize what we've said so far, an innovator is the person who is curious, observes, thinks different and uses both parts of the brain. Or in other words, (s)he needs space to think, likes to play by his/her own rules, might get easily overwhelmed, asks strange questions, and behaves differently from everyone else in your company and doesn't quite fit in. A lot of people who have these characteristics are highly sensitive (click on the link to find out more if you are one). Do you like this description of a potential employee? I don't think so. You probably want somebody a bit more agreeable, understandable, and predictable, someone who plays by the rules. But then, don't expect much innovation in your company - it comes with a package.
If you'd like to learn more about the types of people who are best at creating innovation and how you can find me, check out my blog about highly sensitive people.