The Innovator's Personality

February 10, 2015

Harold Evans' They Made America is filled with vivid stories and photos of American invention over the last century. It is an account of audacity, the bold and sometimes arrogant disregard of natural restraints in service of some vision or problem to be solved.

Reading the stories and seeing 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.

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, ( 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 non-routine, 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.


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