What it takes to be an innovator (part 1)

I recently read an interesting book, the topic of which fits very well into this year’s conference themes of Leadership and Innovation. The title of the book is “Baanbreker!”, a dutch word which literally translates into “Pathbreaker!” The authors of the book, Rutger Slump and Simon Douw, offer an interesting perspective of what it takes for an innovator to be successful at creating, developing, managing and implementing an innovative idea within a formal organization. Unfortunately, the book is currently not available in english, which is why, with the permission of the authors and the publishing company, and without claim to being accurate in translation, I’d like to share some of the insights brought forward.

Part 1: How to move from an old cliché towards a new idea

Where does an innovator get ideas from?

People take their source of innovation depending on what type of a person they are:

  • “Burgundians” focus on what organizations are really good at and leverage the organization’s strengths to come up with innovative opportunities
  • “Gourmet cooks” track down problems others tend to avoid or dismiss, and use their creative energy to solve them in an innovative way
  • “Fusion cooks” combine elements from different entities, environments or contexts into creating an innovative idea
  • “Sous chefs” join a promising initiative started by someone else and see this as an opportunity for further development and innovation

Stop complaining!

Only by looking at the opportunities can you set things in motion. In order to begin to see the possibilities, be aware of your own actions, your behavior and of your way of thinking. Always be curious to discover new things, even the smallest details. And challenge your critical colleagues to pretend to be a decision maker once in a while, even if the real bosses are not present (or not interested) – you’ll see that this will create room for innovation!


Reframing stems from the process of (1) realizing the complexity of any given situation or problem (2) looking at the hard facts (3) finding patterns (4) representing the same facts from a different – even opposite – angle. Once you’ve reframed, you’ll discover different consequences, which in turn may need a different solution. Next, check the solution(s) with different stakeholders and translate the consequences in practice. Example: long waiting times for the train to come are translated into: “how can we make the waiting time more pleasant for travelers?”


Traditional brainstorming doesn’t always work, as the production of your own ideas is often diverted or even interrupted by those of others. The following will help your brainstorming session to become more effective:

  1. Strip off the complexity of the question to be answered and make it as tangible as possible
  2. Brainstorm by yourself – write down/draw your ideas over a period of time
  3. Do it quietly
  4. Use drawings or images to express your ideas (even if you can’t draw properly, it ain’t art)
  5. Brainstorm with people with backgrounds outside of your own comfort zone
  6. The production of ideas requires you to focus on quantity rather than on quality, avoiding any form of criticism
  7. Leave time and space for your ideas to sink in, most solutions are found in moments of peace and relaxation

Allow mistakes to be made

Innovation is not a straight and flat road towards success. We need to experiment, accept failure, and learn from our mistakes. Some innovations actually stem from failure, yet today’s cultures and organizations are fascinated by end results and turn away when things don’t turn out “as expected”. In order to switch towards a “trial and improve” culture, one needs to shift the focus from the end results towards the process. Failure becomes a standard component of the process, not of the end product, and a fixed mind”set” (all or nothing) makes room for a determined mind”flow” (continuous improvement).

Within such a culture, you learn by doing and “live” feedback is needed on a continuous basis. At the same time, don’t take it too personal and make sure you always can look at the process from a distance (often innovators are so deeply involved that they become oblivious to mistakes or are offended at the slightest form of criticism).


People are in need of control, because control provides a sense of security. Despite the latter, it remains difficult to rely on others when uncertainty strikes or if higher stakes are at play. This is where the commitment of the team is tested.

Improvisation on the other hand embraces openness to whatever (unexpected) situation occurs. It is not a coincidence that improvisation has been called “the competitive skill of the future”. The good news is: it can be trained. Start by banning words like “yes, but…”, and replacing them by “yes, and…”. Further pre-requisites for developing your ability to improvise include the presence of trust in your team, as well as the “fun” factor.

Improvisation is part of the toolkit of an innovator, along with creativity (ability to devise opportunities), intuition, experimentation and flexibility (ability to let go of your own ideas and to apply your thoughts based on what reality tells you).

So now you’ve found an idea to work with. Next time, we’ll see how you can develop your idea.