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Characteristics of an Innovative Mindset

How individual traits and qualities can be an asset to the innovation process

Lauren Everett

Innovations don’t arise simply from an individual’s creative idea. A team of partners and advocates are needed to fine-tune the idea or product, test it, introduce it to the public, and generate interest and adoption of it. Therefore, classifying a creative, out-of-the-box thinker as an innovator is only part of the definition. Execution of the innovative idea is arguably more important than the idea itself. In the lab, ensuring you have a team of collaborative individuals with key traits and characteristics that will help an idea move through each of the stages of innovation is crucial. 

To get a fuller picture of what traits and behaviors qualify as being beneficial to innovation, researchers conducted a study, published in the International Journal of Innovation Management,1 focusing on an often-overlooked contributor to innovation—an individual’s experimentation behavior and the characteristics that influence it. As study authors Lotta Hassi and Satu Rekonen explain, experimentation behavior is “the behavior toward designing, executing, and learning from experiments.” So, how can an individual’s experimentation behavior affect an innovation project?

Studying the process of innovation

The study included 18 participants involved with short-term innovation projects within a Finnish financial institution and who were unfamiliar with experimentation prior to the project. The individuals represented five different departments and worked in innovation projects focusing on different topics to allow for variation in the study. The researchers acted as tutors during the projects and collected a variety of data from observations during numerous workshops, tutoring sessions, email communication, face-to-face interviews after the completion of the projects, etc. 

Based on the observations and results, the researchers identified 12 individual-level characteristics that promote experimentation behavior (see figure 1). These characteristics proved important in specific ways at different stages of the projects’ journeys. “These findings suggest how different activities that constitute experimentation (e.g., identifying uncertainties and running an experiment) draw on different kinds of characteristics of an individual. Thereby, the adequate managerial support also changes from activity to another,” write the study authors.

A closer look at experimentation characteristics

While all 12 characteristics outlined in the study influenced the direction of the five projects, the study authors elaborated on a few that had a particularly strong impact. One of these was continuous reflection: “Through continuous reflection, the participants were able to notice new pieces of information that were potentially important for the direction of the project,” write the authors.

A participant in one project group said, “I questioned many things...and I didn’t do it out of spite...sometimes eagerness goes before good sense, and in our team, there was a lot of eagerness. I asked if we are doing the right things because I wanted to ensure that we are not falling of the track.”

There’s a fine line between sufficient and too much planning, however. This is where action-oriented individuals can shine. “Some individuals were more likely to take action, move from intellectual work to practical, which proved fundamental when building a prototype and running the experiment,” write the authors. Remaining stagnant in the planning or brainstorming phase can cause teams to only see the flaws of an idea rather than the potential. At some point, experimentation is needed to see what works and what doesn’t. Action-oriented individuals can lead this stage.

When the researchers conducted interviews with the participants, the individual-level characteristic that was referred to most often was courage. Even the most confident of individuals will experience a level of discomfort and vulnerability when pitching an idea to someone of authority. This was a common feeling across the project groups. As one participant explained, “...it was quite funny that I was really feeling nervous that [the users] also like this [idea] because I do think it is a good one.”

Chart showing traits of experimental behavior
Figure 1: 12 characteristics that promote experimentation behavior.
Credit: Lotta Hassi and Satu Rekonen, International Journal of Innovation Management

How does other work compare?

Some of the characteristics suggested by Hassi and Rekonen share commonalities among those that have been identified in other work. A study published in 2020 in the International Journal of Research in Management & Business Studies2 explored the impact of the “big five” personality traits on innovative behavior among business students. The study authors hypothesized that these big five traits—extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience—would all have positive effects on innovative behavior among business students. They concluded that extraversion, conscientiousness, and openness specifically hold the positive impact they hypothesized, with conscientiousness being the highest. Conscientiousness has overlapping qualities with Hassi and Rekonen’s choice of continuous reflection, as both aim to evaluate and improve one’s work. Another similar characteristic between the two studies is openness to experience and unattached exploration. Both characteristics enable individuals to look beyond their scope to embrace other ideas.

As a final example, a Harvard Business Review article emphasizes “an opportunistic mindset” as one of five characteristics of successful innovators, a good match to Hassi and Rekonen’s use of “opportunity focused.”

These overlapping conclusions further support the importance of the identified characteristics when working on innovation projects.

How managers can encourage innovative behavior

These characteristics come naturally for some and are harder to adopt in others. Building on the example of continuous reflection above, the study authors explained that continuous reflection was a difficult task for many of the study participants, but for a few, it was their way of working. Without these few individuals, the team may have moved too quickly between the innovation processes and missed important details, ultimately leading to a potential failure of their idea. Managers can encourage individuals to pause and consider possible scenarios or red flags before coming to a final decision. Demonstrate that taking more time to get it right is better than rushing to get results. 

Because courage was the most cited characteristic among the study participants, it suggests that this should be a primary area of focus for managers. The interviews showed that individuals who accepted the initial challenge of approaching people with a new idea found it became easier to do the more they did it. Managers can offer their staff opportunities to practice their pitches or connect them with mentors who can offer advice and encouragement. Managers can also promote an “open door”-style policy where staff know they are welcome to share feedback or ideas with the manager at any time without feeling like they are a bother. 

The study authors also note that different characteristics are especially valuable at specific stages of the projects. For example, opportunity-focused individuals are most helpful after experiments have been performed and learnings have been identified. A mentally resilient individual will remain motivated if conclusions from the experiment phase are critical of the initial idea and require a rethink of ideas. 

Continuous reflection is a characteristic needed throughout all stages of the innovation project. It Is important for managers to identify team members who exhibit this trait and involve them in the project from the beginning. 

This study offers insight for lab managers to strategically build teams among their staff. Ensuring your teams represent a mix of individuals who exhibit these characteristics will give you the best chance of pursuing innovative ideas and achieving the outlined goal.

References:

1.  Hassi & Rekonen (2018). How Individual Characteristics Promote Experimentation in Innovation. International Journal of Innovation Management. DOI: 10.1142/S136391961850038X 

2.  Dangmei, Pratap Singh, & Choudari (2020). Impacts of Big Five Personality Traits on Innovative Behaviour Among Business Students: An Empirical Study. International Journal of Research in Management & Business Studies. www.researchgate.net/publication/347977113_Impacts_of_Big_Five_Personality_Traits_on_Innovative_Behaviour_Among_Business_Students_An_Empirical_Study