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The paradox of innovation: Growing pains, difficult people and more

Ideas are a dime a dozen – it’s the people who can execute on them that really make things fly.

Business psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor at University College London and a visiting professor at New York University, has made a career out of studying this kind of thing, and on a visit to New Zealand this week, took some time out to chat to Idealog about what makes a true innovator and how organisations – including government – can foster creativity.

5 characteristics of successful innovators

Chamorro-Premuzic breaks it down into a few key competencies, including external and psychological traits

Education – It matters whether someone has expertise in an area – you’re unlikely to be a Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur if you don’t have programming skills

Social capital – The people who you know. That’s why in some places there’s more entrepreneurial activity, it’s self-fulfilling – they go where there is entrepreneurial activity

Creativity – The capacity to come up with original ideas

Proactivity/Opportunism – Following up on them and following through at the right time 

Vision – Understand why what you’re doing matters and sell that idea to others (Read more: Why are you in business?)

The state of entrepreneurship in New Zealand

There is actually quite a bit of data on this. New Zealand is a really interesting phenomenon. By most economic and psychological standards there’s a very high rate and potential for entrepreneurship.

Some of these kind of factors can be explained by economic measures – for example it’s one of the countries in the world where you can create a company fastest, it takes about one day and it’s very cheap

Secondly there’s a very large percentage of startup activity and that we can explain in psychological terms … Kiwis tend to have a lower sense of tradition … they don’t care much about fancy titles, they’re happy to do [things] independently on their own.

Startup rates are high but there isn’t a high percentage of converting those initial startups into medium or bigger sized companies. That can be explained by character traits, they tend to be too individualistic, they actually don’t collaborate sufficiently among each other … if you’re too focused on individual goals you have a lot of people who launch businesses and work for themselves but not grow them into successful enterprises.

… At the same time I think globally there’s so much marketing, PR and emphasis on entrepreneurship these days that people jump into it underestimating how hard it is to run and grow a business.

?The gender imbalance 

Microfinancing globally is seeing a leveller, something that compensates for the glass ceiling not just in the corporate world but also in the startup world. More or less the same percentage of men and woman apply for large grants for startups but if you look at the world of very small grants about it’s about 70-80 percent female, 20-30 percent male. So it’s kind of an intermediate step that most women need to make in most places to get to be successful…

The key point in [my recent Harvard Business Review] article was there absolutely no indication that men are more competent or more talented in regards to innovation and entrepreneurship. ?There’s a lot of evidence showing women are slightly more talented in some of the things that are required for entrepreneurial success…

The fact that people who have capital to invest in business are more likely to believe in an idea if it comes from a man –think partly it has to do with the fact that people associate entrepreneurship with a bunch of male normative and almost psychopathic traits – risk taker, impulsive … if those are your standards of course you’re going to prefer to fund men rather than women.

Making the most of creative employees

Typically managers can’t distinguish between high performers and those with the talent for innovation. Mostly they don’t want to. They can be moody, erratic, hard to manage… Most people are not willing to put up with people who are different…

Mostly it’s easier to make people more innovative by having a culture that values, respects and foments innovation, and by helping them build teams or complement their own style and values with other people who may have things they don’t have themselves

Look at the specific networks that you have in your organisation so that you not only identify your most innovative people and see how they’re actually being used. Put them to work on meaningful tasks and other people can use them as a resource.

Innovation in government

Most people don’t think of the public sector, the government, as a naturally innovative environment. But the reality is that it’s incredibly consequential. That sector has more influence on innovation than any other sector because it affects how our whole society or country runs.

There’s a difference between trying to hire people who are naturally innovative and creative by disposition and trying to build an organisation or department, division, staff … who try to promote innovation – and that’s what public sectors need to do. They don’t need to have people working there that are naturally disruptive and come up with tons of ideas, but come up with ideas that help a country become more innovative.

When you have a organisation that is quite formal, traditional and bureaucratic it does not encourage novel ideas. But these same processes can be put to serve and organise a system that actually promotes innovation. What the government or civil service needs to do everywhere is to create the rules of the game for other people to play and be more innovative. 

Of course there is a certain level of innovation required for that. More important is implementation. The great advantage in civil service is that it tends to attract people who are really smart,  really educated, hard working and with a good understanding of systems. How can they leverage that to create the rules for innovation so people outside the sector can be disruptive?

The paradox of growth and innovation

Think of Facebook, Amazon, Google. When you can think of those companies, it’s too late, they’re already too big to be innovative. Look at Facebook acquiring all those startups – they have stopped being creative.

This is one of the interesting paradoxes of innovation. Innovation leads to growth but as you grow you become less innovative and the bigger you are, the more you need to maintain processes that almost kill innovation.

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