My favorite feel-good book of the last decade is Harold Evans’ They Made America (http://www.amazon.com/They-Made-America-Centuries-Innovators/dp/0316277665)
Unlike the many soul-sucking, self-help books on innovation, this one is a coffee table book, filled with vivid stories and photos of American invention over the last century jumping off the page. It is a stirring account of audacity, the bold and sometimes arrogant disregard of natural restraints in service of some vision or problem to be solved. Flip the pages, while listening to America the Beautiful and watching Clint Eastwood’s Half-Time in America spot, and you will have thoughts of building transcontinental railroads (or maybe even high-speed rail-lines in California?)
Building the Union Pacific, Citadel Rock
Reading the stories and peering at these images, I wondered what we really know about who “They” are – the characters in these stories – and what conditions enabled them to do what they did. So I am setting out in this series of posts to compile the latest social science theory and research on innovation. The first posts will address what we know about the individual characteristics associated with productive invention. In later posts, I will explore the questions of culture and social structures most conducive to creativity. Thoughout, I hope to draw out some practical implications for those of us trying to do things differently and helping our teams be more innovative.
The Innovator’s Personality
The most innovative scientists and engineers have a handful of personality traits in common. In a recent research report in the Journal of Applied Psychology, (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/97/1/225/
) Robert Keller from the University of Houston, found that the scientists with the strongest track records of publications, patents and performance over a span of 1 to 5 years possess the following characteristics:
1. High self esteem: The most productive scientists and engineers demonstrated the highest perceived self-value and self-worth.
2. High internal locus of control (LOC): An individual’s locus of control measures the extent to which they believe they control (internals) or external factors (externals) control important outcomes in their lives. Keller found that an internal locus of control predicted 5-years-later patents and publications
3. Innovative orientation: While sometimes referred to as a cognitive style, this attribute measures a person’s ability to do things differently, to transcend social conventions and avoid conforming. It is measured by self-report items like, “I would sooner create than improve” and not surprisingly, strongly predicts innovative performance. Keller also found that task complexity moderates this relationship, such that those with the highest innovative orientation are particularly more successful given nonroutine, unanalyzable tasks (characterized by many exceptions, unexpected events or lacking a set of analytical procedures to solve the problem) when compared with routine tasks.
Selecting for Innovative Personalities
Recruiting scientists and engineers with these personality traits is simply a matter of using a standardized psychological test in your hiring process and/or specifically probing for these traits in your interviews. If you need people to solve particularly complex tasks, with many alternatives, knowledge bases and angles of attack, focus specifically on innovative orientation and consider question such as the Adaptation-Innovation Inventory (KAI, Kirton, 1976).
While we all focus heavily on cognitive capacity and strive to hire the smartest scientists and engineers, this research tells us that personality traits predict innovation productivity as much if not more than IQ. So, in addition to peppering candidates with clever problems to solve, be sure to ask them about their inner lives – how they see themselves, the reasons for their successes and failures and their ability to buck convention. People with these traits made America and they will drive more innovation for your team.