Five Traits Shared By Great Innovators

Last Updated Dec 4, 2009 6:33 PM EST

You probably already know that Apple's Steve Jobs, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Dell founder Michael Dell are considered great innovators. But do you know the shared skills that make them that way?

This is what researchers from Harvard Business School, Insead and Brigham Young University set out to find when they undertook a six-year study of over 500 entrepreneurs and 3,000 executives. Their results have been published in "The Innovator's DNA," an article in this month's Harvard Business Review.

So what did they find out? Here are the five skills shared by great innovators:

  • 1. Associating: "What the innovators have in common is that they can put together ideas and information in unique combinations that nobody else has quite put together before," researcher Hal Gregersen, a professor at Insead, told
  • 2. Observing: Spending time with other innovators and watching them in action is crucial to innovative thinking.
  • 3. Networking: While this is a key for most successful business people, true innovators will take their networking efforts beyond their own peers and industry. "Data says that people who have more varied connections hear more diverse information, and see patterns before other people," Gregersen told CNN.
  • 4. Questioning: Continually asking questions such as "What if I tried this?" or "Why do you do that?" while networking with and observing other innovators is important.
  • 5. Experimenting: Most innovators don't get it right the first time; building prototypes and showing them to others for feedback are vital to eventually getting it right.
The researchers classify these skills as creative intelligence, and write, "the good news is, if you're not born with it, you can cultivate it."

Microscope image courtesy of Flickr user Biology Big Brother, CC 2.0

  • Stacy Blackman

    Stacy Sukov Blackman is president of Stacy Blackman Consulting, where she consults on MBA admissions. She earned her MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and her Bachelor of Science from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Stacy serves on the Board of Directors of AIGAC, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, and has published a guide to MBA Admissions, The MBA Application Roadmap.