There's no question that truly innovative people are creative. But creativity alone is not enough. True innovators, those people who can deliver new ideas and offerings that are relevant to the market, possess something in addition to creativity. I've been doing a lot of work in this area lately, and will be working with PDMA and with a consortium at the Steven's Institute to help identify best practices and build a body of knowledge in this area, especially as it relates to enterpreneurship and new venture creation.
However, before we can build a credible body of knowledge in this area, we must first be able to identify what "it" is that successful innovators have that others - even highly creative people - may not have. I've written about this briefly where I've metaphorically described this skill as the ability to make synesthesia-like connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or observations. But ultimately, I think this is just one way to describe the way they perceive the world and make connections within it.
What's interesting to me is that we currently don't have a good way to talk about the way people perceive relative to how it may help or hinder them in doing specific jobs. Is there anything on your resume that talks about the way you perceive the world? I would guess not. And if there was, would it be even remotely helpful to the person reading your resume? Again, probably not. And yet this is the one area where I see people either succeed or fail in their ability to perform as early stage entrepreneurs, investors, and innovation managers in large companies.
I'm also not sure if it's the actual perceptual skills that are different, or the way our brains process what we are perceiving. For example, if a person who sees the similar in the dissimilar looks at a block of ice, a puddle of water, and a cloud of steam, they would describe them all as similar - they are all composed of H2O. Others would look at the surface details and describe them as three different structures. Is that perceiving, or processing? I hope to collect different points of view on this question as part of the body of knowledge.
What I do know now is that when you are assessing someone's ability to successfully innovate, it might be useful to stop and think about how they perceive the world. Are they able to see similarities in dissimilar things? Do the similarities make sense? Is the person assessing them able to tell the difference? As John Hagel states in many different ways in his blog, we are about to enter a Great Shift in how our world works. It might be time to figure out how to define perceptual skills that could go easily unrecognized in the old economy, yet will be absolutely necessary for success in the new economy.