innovation-awards-logoThomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Alexander Bell, Marie Curie… 

On the face of it, these people may not have much in common, but they all topped Lemelson-MIT’s 2012 list of great innovators, with names that will go down in history (and occasionally, infamy). So what exactly unites these revolutionary thinkers? 

We’ve been talking about innovation a lot in the lead-up to our 2012 Innovation Awards on February 23rd, and while approaches and implementation differ wildly, one point that keeps arising is that Innovation is all about people, about those brave souls with the gumption to push a wild idea through to completion. 

Finding the people with the right skills is a major challenge for any business, so how do you spot these people, and how do you harness their ideas? 

The candidates on our awards shortlist all know a lot about the brainstorming process, and all have the ability to bring these ideas to fruition, so who better to answer today’s Innovation question:

What are the characteristics of great innovators?

Let’s start with a company renowned for its innovative, free-thinking culture. Sissie Hsiao is Group Product Manager for Google Analytics:

Great innovators are not afraid to fail, but in a pragmatic, thoughtful way. I think everyone has great ideas. It’s figuring out which ones to put resources behind and knowing how to cut bait early on failures that makes a person go from a “good ideas” person to a “great innovator”.  

After all, an innovation is a great idea that has come to fruition and achieved adoption, which requires time, money, and manpower.

Sissie’s thoughts chimed with many of the answers we received. Ken Leung from Euclid Elements also felt that knowing how to resource and prioritise was an extremely useful skill.

Great innovators are able to see existing problems, materials, and solutions and are able to utilize this knowledge to find ways in which things might be done better.  

They are also great historians. Many have learned from mistakes of the past or even repeated history in a new context with great results.

Ambarish Mitra ( Co-Founder of Blippar) also mentioned the ability to combine disparate elements in a useful way:

Great innovators usually see connections between dissimilar things. They also ask lots of questions and challenge the norm and are not afraid to fail. Instincts play a part too.

While the ability to think laterally was highly prized, a number of respondents also believed an ability to question and challenge existing processes was valuable, providing it had a practical purpose and was based around improving the customer experience.

Per Larsen CEO and Co-founder

I assume the average great innovator (there are outliers) is driven by a constant need to challenge status quo and find better ways of doing things. They get bored by routines and they are probably also optimistic.

Optimism is probably the most important as you need to believe change is possible and overcome resistance. Sometimes you also have to ignore convention and statistics which tells you to stop and give up.

Maani Safa,  Innovation Director at Somo:

Curious, brave, risk taking rule breakers.

Indeed, this kind of unconventional thinking may not be something you can identify through your regular interview process, meaning it’s important to take note of social channels (and the occasional social outing) to identify the people who fit roles that are centered around innovation.

Glen Conybeare and Paul Huggett from Stickyeyes had this to say:


Confident.  Prepared to fail. Enjoy risk. Enjoy success more. Generally very social animals – you’ll find them in the bar at 2am.


Someone who is motivated to deliver something truly exception and is able to take an idea, shape it, polish it and generally make it a better overall innovation.

Andy Harding is Director of e-commerce at House of Fraser. He provided us with a handy bullet-point list of attributes to look out for: 

•A really advanced intellectual curiosity

•Persistence – most great innovators failed before they succeeded. 

•Being slightly mad/reckless helps!

Overall, our panel agreed that really caring about their role was key. Innovators don’t always work 9-5, and you can’t force great ideas to make themselves known during office hours.

Bringing an innovative idea to market requires hours of hard work, patience, procedural planning, experimentation and testing, but once again it’s important to remember that a great idea can come from anyone, at any time. 

Buddy Media’s European MD Luca Benini told us: 

I think the most important characteristic of an innovator is passion. If you truly care about what you are doing, you will invest time, thought and effort into creating something new and improving your current product.

Look at the great innovators, like Steve Jobs. He cared about his craft so much, and was so passionate about it. There are other characteristics that help, but without passion, the other qualities become meaningless. 

It’s this passionate approach, combined with a willingness to fail, and learn from those mistakes, that truly marks those with innovative personalities. 

Chris Underhill, CEO of  iVoucher:

The best innovators I have met and worked with see no boundaries in what they do, they see opportunity in everything and strive to be forward thinking every day. They are never scared of the potential of innovation, and embrace the challenge.

William Smyth, Head of Digital  at OMD UK:

Restlessness and an inability to be satisfied are characteristics of innovators. Crucially, they don’t just talk about stuff; they do it, and do it with belief and self-confidence. If they fail, they’re not put off and just keep going – James Dyson is a great example of a genuine innovator who had a lot of knock backs before he really broke through.

The ability to consistently innovate may be difficult to spot at first, but as our awards shortlist shows, there are plenty of people with the talent to make the most of unconventional ideas out there, and looking out for them is a must if you want to prosper in the current climate.

What do you think sets true innovators apart from the crowd? As usual, we invite your comments and suggestions. 

Econsultancy’s 2012 Innovation Awards celebrate those businesses and individuals who are helping shape the future of marketing. This year’s ceremony takes place in London on February 23rd.

Visit our events page to view this year’s shortlist, and book your table for an evening of great food, dancing and amazing entertainment.