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The Three Personalities of Innovative Teams

AcxiomFebruary 02, 2016

My expertise, and what has made it so much fun to get up and go to work for the last 40 years in Silicon Valley, is the opportunity to create something out of nothing. Making products no one even knew they needed before they needed them. Conceiving them; building them; bringing them to market. You are probably using some of the technologies my teams brought to market every day, even though you may not see them or know it was my teams that built them.

So it only makes sense for me to entice and engage you in 2016 and beyond on the subject of how individuals, teams and companies innovate new products. This is especially appropriate since I lead Acxiom’s Research Labs, a place where innovation is as all-pervasive as the air we breathe. (Wait. Do you think that is air you are breathing?) A very wide and deep ocean, to say the least. But let’s try to drink it one small gulp at a time.

Today’s gulp is one of the more interesting tidbits I have discovered about innovation after leading many new product teams: the three basic innovator personalities. In my experience, there are three kinds of innovators, and you need at least one of each of these personality types on any team that is trying to ‘create something out of nothing’ to have the highest likelihood of success. I call these three personality types Creatives, Innovatives, and Communicatives.

Of course, it is possible to succeed lacking one or the other, but it makes a successful outcome much less certain. Also, each personality type is an archetype. You rarely see them in their pure form. Instead, everyone contains these three personality types in their repertoire in some measure. The issue is that you need team members to have differing dominant innovator personalities.

The Creative. The creative is a person with 10 ideas for every one you can implement. They are a veritable fount of new ideas and concepts. They are natural design thinkers, and can take a simple notion and turn it into a broad product concept. However, this personality is not as excited about the details of implementation. It isn’t that they are bored by or unconcerned about implementation. In many cases they care greatly about how their idea is converted into physical reality. But their main driver is the big picture. They love a conceptual plain where there are no boundaries and their minds can roam freely. They are completely comfortable with uncertainty and lack of definition, and they tend to be excellent at “design by analogy.” That is, taking a concept from one field, product, or design area and applying that idea by analogy to another.

While The Creative is a wellspring of raw material for new products, their equally important role on the team is to stimulate others who are more dominantly innovative or communicative to let their minds wander with less constraint. The Creative’s ideas become strawmen to play against or, equally, frameworks on which to hang other, perhaps unrelated ideas or concepts. The Creative makes it safe for the whole team to be a little unpredictable and childlike, something that, as a rule, typical standards of “mature” behavior tend to drum out of us on a regular basis. You can’t innovate something out of the box unless you are first willing to climb out of it. The Creative helps teammates do just that.

The Innovative. The Innovative personality type is the builder. These are the folks who take the ideas the team deems most worthy and makes them real. The Innovative deals with uncertainty in a very specific way. Once they have a direction, they work very hard to bring order to the chaos of creation. They love to take the big idea and break it down into manageable pieces that can then be defined and made real.

That could be said of any builder. What makes the Innovative different is that they express their creativity by conceiving new ways of achieving a goal. While others tread a known path to construction – for example, using a standard UI widget – they tend to look for unique ways to build features into the broad concept, in our example by creating a new class of UI elements that give a software interface a unique look and feel. My favorite example of this is Alan Adler, the Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford who invented the Aerobie. The Aerobie is a very thin flying ring that I think of as a Frisbee with hole in it. For fifty years people had been trying to get a Frisbee to fly further, but it took Alan and his unique creativity to see ‘the hole in the Frisbee” and build it that way. The result was a fun product that outflies the Frisbee by a mile and has sold 10mm units [1].

Now you might argue that this is really a case of incremental innovation and that The Innovative personality is nothing more than The Creative personality type applied to incremental innovations. But I can show you just as many examples of Innovatives structuring truly unique and remarkable features into completely new categories of products. In fact, ultimately it is the creativity that the Innovative personalities add to products that we remember – the unusual made real that we can touch, hear, see, and smell – that make great products so remarkable.

The Communicative. Creating something out of nothing is very hard. Getting people to understand something they have never experienced or thought of before is even harder. This is especially true in the early stages of product development. And it is especially critical where getting buy in from investors to fund, partners to support, or suppliers to provide raw materials or create special parts in low volumes (as examples) needed for early prototyping can make or break an endeavor. The Communicative, as their name denotes, is the personality type that is uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between the product team and critical audiences. At their best, The Communicative instinctively understands how to develop vocabulary or visual tools to engage audiences emotionally in a new product or concept. They are master storytellers, and are equally facile in telling stories about their product in writing, PowerPoint, images, videos or demos. They have an ability to take complex technical ideas and simplify them for business audiences or prospective customers. The Communicative can come from any function; they do not need to be marketers or salespeople.  Eric Schmidt, an engineer by background and temperament, was known as a master technology storyteller long before he became a household name as CEO of Google, for example. You cannot innovate a new product or service without being able to get a wide range of groups to invest in your efforts, any more than you can get to the Super Bowl without a large base of fans.

Word to the wise: when building teams to create new products, make sure you have a balance of these three personality types working together to ensure the highest probability of success.


[1] There is a great article on Alan and his inventions in Backchannel from March, 2015 I urge anyone interested in innovation to read.  It can be found here.