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Most innovators are spotters not creators – but that’s fine


Over the last couple of weeks I have been conducting coaching for innovators identified using our psychometric assessments. This has reminded me of an important issue that usually gets overlooked in discussions on innovation.

In the conventional wisdom, an innovator is someone who thinks up an idea and then (maybe) does something with it. I have blogged before on this confusion.

Steve Jobs filched the Apple GUI from Xerox. Bill Gates bought DOS from tiny company Seattle software for a song. Neither created the products for which they were later, justly, seen as being the innovators.

They didn’t create the products; they spotted them. Many innovators are incredible spotters of opportunities that everyone else has missed. In many cases, that’s what makes them the innovator, not that they created the idea, product or service, which as I have said, in many cases they didn’t.

Last week I was coaching a young lady with an incredible idea which she is already putting into practice in a project which could become a company. In discussing it with her she told me that she had got the idea from her husband.

But that doesn’t make me think any the less of her innovative capabilities. Her husband threw out an idea which she spotted as an opportunity. No doubt this isn’t the first time an idea like hers has bene mentioned somewhere. The difference is she immediately saw the opportunity and picked it up and ran with it. That’s the difference between most innovators and most of the rest of us.

However I wouldn’t go so far as to say that all innovators are spotters. Some are indeed creators. Einstein clearly created his own ideas. But there many others who were quick to see their importance and who say how they could be used, for example in navigation, timekeeping and so on.

Einstein was a scientific innovator. Most innovators in business are commercial innovators. Scientific innovators do something like Einstein and dream up something new. Commercial innovators usually spot something that already exists but has lain dormant since no-one saw the enormous possibilities of the idea.

Discussions about innovation and innovators have tended to confuse the two types of innovation. The result is that commercial innovation, where someone spots an existing idea, is somehow looked down upon as inferior. Of course, when it’s by an icon like Steve Jobs, we overlook the fact that he got it illegally. But that’s a very narrow-minded view and overlooks the source of most commercial innovation.

So in working with innovators you have to be very careful that you don’t say something like “You didn’t make up that idea; I heard it before somewhere else so the you didn’t make it up and therefore you aren’t an innovator.” Because that misses the whole point and would have missed Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and innumerable others.

It’s another tweak on the true meaning of innovation. Those of you have kept up with this blog know that this is another of my pet peeves (right up there with thinking that anyone can be an innovator).

Spotting the unspotted is just as socially valuable as creating the uncreated. If you don’t want to end up missing something really important, you need to keep that firmly in mind.















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