What Makes an Innovator?

Innovators have shaped the world we live in. Their drive, ideas and creations have brought about things others considered impossible. There is no set of characteristics that by itself determines who will be an innovator, but many accomplished innovators share certain traits. Here are 10:

Acceptance of uncertainty

Jumping into the unknown can be very daunting, but for innovators it is commonplace. Innovators often have to believe in their idea or product when no one else does.<br><br> "Google is a great example of an organization that is comfortable with uncertainty," said Udaya Patnaik, a principal at Jump Associates, an agency that help companies create new businesses and reinvent existing ones. "They dive into gray areas every day and actively encourage engineering and R&D-focused employees to spend time exploring new projects.<br><br> "Take Google's acquisition of YouTube. The deal was panned by most Wall Street analysts because the path to profitability for YouTube was still quite murky when Google stepped in. However, Google believed that an opportunity existed and was willing to wait for a strong video-based advertising model to emerge. The road was bumpy, and perhaps took longer than expected, but the benefits to Google are definitely starting to emerge."

Tolerance of failure

This trait goes hand in hand with acceptance of uncertainty. A good innovator should be able accept a few failures and realize when a plan isn't working. He or she might have to come back to an idea a few times before something works out.<br><br> "Edison is the perfect example of tolerating failure," said Stephen Ezell, of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "You can just look at his famous quote about the light bulb: 'I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.'"

Passion and drive

Faced with skepticism and the possibility of failure, innovators have to rely on their own will to succeed. Those who are passionate about their ideas will work to see them through. Innovators have to be able to push back against the doubts.<br><br> "When Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he was just driven by an inner fire, this all-consuming passion to reshape the world with personalized computers," said Ezell. "He tried to sell Microsoft to IBM, and when they turned him down, he said, 'Fine, we'll build it ourselves,' and look how far he's taken it."


What makes a company succeed is not just the person who founded it; it's also a team that embodies the various traits needed to turn a new idea into a reality. Innovation today relies on a whole cast of people with different skills and backgrounds to make the most of a new idea or product.<br><br> "Pixar's teamwork is phenomenal; it has to be, in order to create blockbuster after blockbuster," Bruce King-Shey of Jump Associates said, referring to the animation-film studio. "They have scene-viewing parties, where everyone is allowed and encouraged to question and criticize the clip, even the most junior illustrator, in efforts to produce the best outcome."


Curiosity motivates innovators to look into ideas that can change the world. Innovators are open to new ideas and willing to pursue new possibilities.<br><br> Google's "20 percent time" (a program that allows employees to use a portion of their paid time to work on their own projects) is well-known, but 3M was actually the first company to originate the concept, in 1948.<br><br> "The 3M model of letting folks deliver on little individual projects that people were tinkering on has yielded lots of stuff," King-Shey told InnovationNewsDaily.<br><br> In fact, 3M's 15 percent program is what brought us the Post-it note, clear bandages, optical films that reflect light, and painter's tape that sticks to wall edges.


The ability to adapt is a survival mechanism for every plant and animal on Earth. When an idea isn't working or an obstacle appears, the successful innovator is the one who can find a way around that problem and get things back on track.<br><br> "Southwest Airlines was started in 1971 with just two aircraft and a flight plan with three destinations: Houston, Dallas and San Antonio," ITIF's Ezell said. "At the time, Braniff Airlines decided to try and knock Southwest out of the Texas market. They did so by undercutting all of Southwest's fares and offering $19 flights to Dallas.<br><br> "Southwest's solution was to give each of their customers a bottle of liquor with every flight, and a leather ice bucket to keep it in. It was a booming success, and by adapting and coming up with this crazy idea, Southwest was able to stay in business and become the company it is today."


Quite often, innovators are on the cutting edge of their field. They are the ones who will be creating the newest technology, method or process. To do that requires the ability to look at whatever is in place at the moment and imagine what should come next.<br><br> "There's a reason James Cameron was willing to wait 12 years between directing 'Titanic' and 'Avatar.' It's because he's a visionary who is willing to take chances and create opportunities where roadblocks exist," said Jump Associates' Patnaik. "Cameron was an early believer in 3-D filming, but when the technology was lacking to produce 'Avatar' as he envisioned it, he developed the technology on his own. Cameron is more than a filmmaker. He's also a technologist, businessman and explorer."


A good part of innovation is finding a solution to an issue or filling a need. An innovator must have the ability to think through a new approach or find an answer that wasn't apparent in the first place.<br><br> "Nike stands out because of the culture they've created around sports and their creativity within the organization," said Patnaik. "They have internal awards and events to reward great new ideas and celebrate creative solutions to challenging problems."

Sense of marketing

A good idea can take you only so far. What it comes down to in the end is an innovator's ability to convince others that what he or she has created is worthwhile.<br><br> "There's no shortage of great ideas in the world waiting to be sent to market," Patnaik said. "However, you actually have to get them to market, and that's where plenty of companies fail. While we all praise Apple for their creativity, we should not overlook their excellent supply chain management, lean inventory model and amazing run of highly popular ad campaigns. After all, Steve Jobs is well known for saying that real artists ship."

Nose for new markets

One of the best ways to ensure that an idea is a success is to fill a need that no one else thought to fill.<br><br> "Look at Bloomberg: It was created because financial professionals had a need for data right on their desktops, before anyone even thought that there was a need for that information," said Michael Mandel, a scholar with the Progressive Policy Institute. "...They were willing to go there and create something for this market that didn't even exist yet."

10 Traits of Successful Innovators