By Mike Rainone

In theory, anyone can innovate. In practice, few do. What sets the innovators apart?

At PCDworks, we’re in the business of innovation, which means we’ve had to learn how to identify innovative minds. Usually, when hiring, people look at resumes and past experience. Innovation is hard to quantify, though. It is not simply an action, but a mindset—a way of thinking and looking at the world. 

In my experience as co-founder, instead of relying on resumes, you need to look deeper, at core character traits. If you want to innovate, you need curious generalists who aren’t fatheads. That’s the special sauce.

#1: Curious

Hanging on the wall of my office is a quote from Albert Einstein: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” This quote has defined my career as an innovator.

When I was first starting out, Seymour, a housewares manufacturer, came to the industrial design firm I worked for and asked us to find a way to make their ironing boards more stable. 

Frankly, I don’t care much about ironing boards. I’d rather wear wrinkled clothes than pull out an ironing board. But I was curious. Ironing boards were notoriously awful and prone to tipping, which is not ideal when working with 400°F heat. Surely there was a better design. 

I started fiddling with some pipe cleaners, and I figured out a mechanism to make the legs spread out as you opened the ironing board, giving it a much more stable base. That was my first design to be patented. 

Over the years, I’ve filed dozens more patents, and the catalyst for each one has been the same: curiosity. Curious people look at the world and continuously ask questions to try to understand it: What? How? Why? Those questions develop into the questions of innovation: What if …? How could we …? Why not …? 

The essence of a curious mind is the awareness of problems that other people just adapt to. In the case of the ironing board, many users claimed that their boards were not tippy, as they unconsciously stood on the leg to stabilize it. This compensatory behavior is what the truly creative problem solver sees.

Curious people naturally want to solve problems. If you pair curiosity with the right problems—problems that are exciting, for which the solutions actually matter—you unleash an innovative powerhouse, someone driven to find solutions. 

#2: Generalist

As with any skill set, experience is valuable for innovation. Not all experience is created equal, though. Some people have twenty years of experience, and some people have one year of experience twenty times. 

Too often, particularly in engineering, people get pigeonholed. I saw this a lot in Detroit in the automotive industry. An engineer would focus their entire career only on differentials or steering columns or some other ultra-specific niche. They kept repeating the same year of experience over and over, which meant their knowledge went incredibly deep, but not wide.

Innovation is often found at the intersection of different specialties, and it requires a flexibility of thinking. As opposed to specialists, you want generalists—specifically, you want “T” people, whose knowledge goes both deep (the vertical line of the T) and wide (the horizontal top of the T).

Specialists do have a place within innovation. At PCDworks, we frequently bring in experts as outside consultants. The best have tacit knowledge that even the most immersed engineer has not considered: essentially, you don’t know what you don’t know, until you bring in the expert. Realistically, though, it is not financially feasible to staff every single specialist you will need. 

With a generalist, even when they don’t know what they don’t know, they know the right people to ask and can pull the knowledge together into a cohesive solution.

#3: Not a Fathead

Recently my son and I were talking about thorium reactors, and we had a disagreement about how something worked. My son is an Army captain, while I’m an engineer, so I believed I had a better handle on the technology. Then I looked it up, and to my surprise, I was wrong. So what did I do? I said, “Okay, you’re right.”

It’s not the most dramatic story, but it demonstrates a key to innovation that many struggle with: not being a fathead. Fatheads are people with big heads, controlled by ego. Fatheads make terrible innovators for three reasons:

  1. Cognitive rigidity does not lead to innovation. Fatheads think they always know best, but as soon as you start making assumptions about the “right” way to do things, you’re limiting your solutions. Innovation requires creative thinking and an openness to new ideas and ways of doing things.
  2. Innovation happens in teams. In the past, a single person could innovate alone, but we’re no longer inventing the wheel—we’re inventing complex, intricate, technical solutions. For success, you need a team, which means you need a baseline of collegiality. If you have a bunch of fatheads, they will inevitably butt heads, and progress will stall.
  3. Learning comes from failure. You don’t necessarily learn from successes, because it’s often not clear exactly why you succeeded. You learn from failures, where you can pinpoint exactly where you screwed up. Fatheads don’t like admitting their mistakes, so they are less likely to learn from their failures. That means they’re less likely to innovate, because ultimately, innovation is a process of repeated failure until success. 

For innovation, humility will take you much farther than arrogance.

Bottling the Special Sauce

Innovation takes place at the limits: the frontiers of understanding and capabilities. 

Curious generalists who aren’t fatheads are the people who thrive at the edges of knowledge. Curiosity drives them to define and explore the boundaries of what’s possible. As generalists, they can build bridges between different limits, and not being fatheads, they know that the limits are often an illusion and there is so much space for us to grow and learn.

Innovation is not an exact science, but if you give me a curious, generalist non-fathead, I’ll bet on them every time.

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