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Ever since I was young I’ve always loved thinking of ways to fix things, build products and make money.

And, over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have worked with so many creative and innovative people.

I’m talking about people like Whitepages’ Alex Algard, Cheezburger’s Ben Huh and BuddyTV’s Andy Liu. These guys are absolute masters at drawing profitable conclusions from problems and ideas from totally unrelated fields. The businesses that these new ideas trigger speak for themselves.

So I thought I would put down on paper what it is that makes these guys innovative thinkers and leaders, and tips that you can use to help you reach their kind of success, too. Here are 10:

Recognizing patterns

Truly innovative people have an ability to see connections across data and ideas, and then turn those patterns they see into even better ideas.

This mental trait starts early with you recognizing patterns in things like language, faces and handwriting, but through experience you see connections between ideas and concepts in the world. They call this lateral thinking.

A good innovate leader will blend information from different sources to come up with solutions and products. If you want to get really good at this, you have to do this:

  • Look at lots of sources of data and ideas and seek out the associations.
  • Encourage those around you to do the same.
  • Question conventional thinking and constantly get into the habit of developing different theories on how you can do something better.

Predicting

Most people stare straight ahead and look for the obvious. That can leave you open to missed opportunities, allowing competition to jump on them instead…or take advantage of weaknesses that you have.

Great innovative leaders instead develop what is called peripheral vision. This is the ability to look not just ahead, but up and down the vertical you are working in and across into very different verticals.

Here are some tips to help you do that:

  • Try to find information that could change the way you do business or the way your industry does business.
  • Look past all of your current boundaries.
  • Create networks of people who are also looking out at the peripheral to help you scan for opportunities. These reciprocal relationships work best with people not in your industry.

Questioning

Howard Schultz (Flickr photo via Richard Eriksson)

This is the ability to ask questions like “Why?” and “Why not?” Howard Schultz is a great example of this type of innovative thinker.

People who constantly are questioning things tend to be really good at other mental traits — like observing, recognizing patterns and experimenting.

Of course if you used nothing but conventional thinking then you would never rock the boat or risk anything…but you would never score the ultimate killer product. Instead, you lose your competitive edge, if you ever had one.

Innovative leaders question everything. And to develop this certain skill, you have to do this:

  • Instead of looking at surface problems, try to figure out what is the root cause of that problem. You are more likely to uncover a profitable solution that way than the other way.
  • Challenge established and popular mindsets and beliefs. This includes your own!
  • Do not stand for hypocrisy or manipulation in your organization, especially when it is related to the creativity and execution of ideas.

Coordinating

True innovative thinkers know that you are never going to get everyone on board all the time. It’s so rare, so you need to make sure it is safe for everyone to discuss issues and ideas out in the open, building trust with your peers, those below you and those above you.

This minimal collaboration will lead to efficiency and spread of ideas. This is how you pull that off:

  • Discover other people’s motives and goals, both professionally and personally. When you understand their agenda it is easier to coordinate.
  • Confront difficult issues no matter how hard it may be or how uncomfortable you may make people.
  • Make sure you know the risks behind your ideas in detail so you can share and explain to other people who you will need to depend upon to build your support.

Mastering

True innovative leaders never stop learning. They are very curious people and are often reading or researching. But they often look for feedback to, hoping to improve what they are doing.

These types of leaders are also good at creating a culture where learning is very important and everyone is encouraged to do it.

This also means that you value and encourage risk…in the face of certain failure. Failure is not a bad thing…but can actually be a school room.

To encourage this kind of behavior in yourself and others, do this:

  • Create a culture where honesty is valued and feedback is welcome. People need to feel safe in this environment so that when it is time to debrief on successes and failures people are prepared.
  • Have a celebration when your team succeeds…and even celebrate at times when you fail at something that was very risky, but you were proud of at least trying.
  • Change direction the moment you realize that you are off track.

Experimenting

Neil Patel

True innovative leaders are masters of experimenting both big and small. Usually you’ll find these types of leaders involved in constant little pet projects—whether it’s running a headline idea through Reddit or tinkering with a new gadget.

The sizes of their experiments grow as they succeed at each stage. When an experiment fails, they either toss it out or tweak it.

And the ideas that they are experimenting on can take years…sometimes even decades. If you want to become better at experimenting, try this:

  • Tinker with new technologies the moment they are released. This could be a new social media platform or an actual gadget that has come out, like a new type of camera.
  • Travel to different places and experiment living like other people. See how they solve their problems.
  • Observe how other people go about experimenting and try to learn techniques from them.

Deciding

This information that innovative leaders are creating can lead to a situation of overload and eventual paralysis. Some people have so many projects going, but none that they have ever actually finished.

True innovative thinkers will land upon a project and see it to it’s completion. They may have dozens of ideas in their head or paper, but there are single-minded about one or two specific projects.

To do this mental trait well, you need to:

  • Count the cost carefully before you jump into any new project. This may be as simple as writing down pros and cons. I’ve found that the act of writing an idea down will sometimes help me to dismiss it immediately so I can move on to more productive things.
  • Be comfortable when you don’t have complete information in some situations and make a decision.

Networking

Whether they are naturally outgoing or not, innovative thinkers tend to be really good about meeting people, especially those they have little in common with. They see the value in knowing lots of people with different backgrounds and experiences. It’s like they view that network as their extended brain and creativity power that they can tap into any time.

If you want to make this mental trait more effective, do this:

  • Join different clubs and association in your local area. And don’t forget that they don’t have to be all related to your business. You can join a science fiction book club or a rock climbing gym. Both of these will expose you to different people who you wouldn’t normally meet.
  • Join social media and use it. I like to connect with people on LinkedIn and then follow up with a reason why I wanted to connect with them. It might be because I’m wanting to build my network of designers or I saw that they have experience in CSS.

Persistence

Embrace failure (Wikipedia photo)

One thing that I love about innovative thinkers and leaders is that they never give up. Even when they’ve failed or fallen to their lost point, they get back up and try again.

They have faith in themselves to succeed and work hard with razor sharp focus on tasks. The downside is that sometimes they are the last ones to give up…even in the face of certain defeat.

But for the most part, innovative leaders will stick with it until they win.

  • Set time limit goals that will help stretch your normal level or risk and work. A good deadline will give you something to shoot for and motivate you to keep working even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Have someone hold you accountable to results. This could be a spouse or a good friend. This person should have the courage to tell you the truth.
  • Remind yourself that success takes a really long time, and each time you feel like things are working remind yourself that success could be just over the hill.

Optimistic

Finally, true innovative leaders are people who are positive. In some cases they are near insane in their optimism, believing they and their team can do the impossible. They may seem crazy but these are the people who will create the billion dollar company or solve the most stubborn problem.

In a lot of ways, you either have optimism or not. You may be a natural born pessimist, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become more positive with these techniques:

  • Avoid bad news and negative opinions. Instead, focus on reading and watching about successful people. This includes people who’ve overcome huge odds whether it was physical, mental or financial.
  • Challenge your pessimism. When you get cynical about a situation, try to look for the silver lining. Is there something you can take advantage of in that circumstance?
  • Hang out with people who are optimistic and will hold you accountable when you are negative.

Conclusion

True innovative people have a certain drive and energy about them that you like to be around. They are always full of ideas and looking for ways to improve things. Keep in mind that they aren’t born as black belts in these mental traits…they’ve developed them over time.

You can, too, by spotting weaknesses in each area and focusing on strengthening that mental trait. With just a little focused work on that trait everyday…say twenty minutes…and you will begin to achieve mastery in it.

What other mental traits do truly innovative leaders have?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions. More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

[Brain image via Bigstock]

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/rob_belcher Rob Belcher

    This is a cool analysis, Neil. I’ve become really interested in organizational behavior / personality type analysis ever since first learning about the field. Some people hate this kind of stuff, so at the risk of annoying you and/or others (a sentiment that in itself is a symptom of MY personality type), I feel like this analysis is ripe for a Myers Briggs break down. 

    Do you think you’ve described just one personality type? Or can several / different ones still fulfill your criteria? 

    Thoughts on what Myers-Briggs type(s) you have described? 

    Again, thoughtful analysis. Thanks. 

    For reference, I find this site interesting, if you look past the copious cheese: http://www.personalitypage.com/html/portraits.html

    • Jen Leskiw

      Hi Rob, I think these traits come from ‘right brained’ thinkers. In particular the element of lateral thinking. Of course, personalities will differ. However, I am interested to find out how many of innovative leaders suffer from a learning disability, such as dyslexia.

  • Guest

    “Of course if you used nothing but conventional thinking then you would never rock the boat or risk anything…but you would never score the ultimate killer product. Instead, you lose your competitive edge, if you ever had one.”

    Sounds like Microsoft.

  • Brett Frevert

    Fantastic!!  How many NOT great leaders have we worked with who didn’t / couldn’t have these traits.

    Thanks for all the GREAT leaders we HAVE worked with!!

    Keep up the great articles.

  • http://twitter.com/ovoinnovation Jeffrey Phillips

    Nice list – but a number of these come directly from the Innovator’s DNA by Dyer and Christensen.  They list five attributes of innovators:  associating, questioning, networking, experimenting, observing.  Good book, worth a read.

  • Bob Metzger

    This has so much relevance to the work I and my team do in industry cluster development for economic development growth in our state — and for collaborative work in general. Great article. 

  • Amrith911

    Great article Neil.

  • Millstauna

    A great article, a thoughtful approach to becoming innovation capable.

  • Ponies LLC

    Scored: 100% 

  • I K Kilam

    Nice list of course. How about adding – Patience & Good Listening Ability.
    ….. IK Kilam

  • http://www.facebook.com/isela.alarcon Isela Alarcon

    So interesting article! I just suggest to add the ability of “emotional inteligence” in this.

  • http://twitter.com/KarenLMahon Karen L. Mahon Ed.D.

    Thanks for the article, Neil. Nice job! The only adjustment I would suggest making is referring to these as behavioral traits, not mental. These are all learned behaviors…true innovators have the experience to know when and how to apply them. Referring to them as mental traits sort of suggests (to me, at least) that these are innate characteristics that these folks were born with, to which the rest of us can’t aspire.

    • http://www.facebook.com/AdamRobertsEF Adam Roberts

      100% :) – behaviour is controlled by the mind and therefore mental. I believe on some level these are traits that we are born with, I’ve always been driven to learning all the time, call it a passion/obsession and wanting to make something completely different, any sane / ‘normal’ person wouldn’t dedicate their life to such a thing. We can learn processes but not everyone keeps that child like curiosity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=644727125 Michael Roesler

    This is sooo me…

  • Venkatesapalani Thangavelu

    Hi Neil Patel,

    The article is in essence based on sound analysis – nice .

    By cultivating ” Lateral Thinking “,most of the way towards innovative thought is through.
    With regards,
    Venkatesapalani Thangavelu

  • http://www.moonfiller.com/ Taran

    Great article Neil.

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    Great post !

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