How Innovators Think

What prevents individuals and organizations from innovating is the way they think.

How Innovators Think is a project to identify and research the patterns in the thinking of the world’s top innovators, to find out how it differs from that of non-innovators. In today’s world, innovation is an imperative, but very few people and organizations succeed at it.

That’s because innovation is not solved by money: wealthy organizations routinely struggle to innovate. Innovation is not solved by talent: non-innovative companies are filled with smart people. Innovation is not solved by knowledge: talk to the CEO of a large incumbent and they often know what they should be doing.

After interacting with dozens of innovators over more than two decades, I was able to observe that the mindset of innovators differs from the thinking of non innovators in two ways:

  1. Innovators understand the 21st century environment and don’t fall for the big lies that surround innovation.
  2. Innovators share unique characteristics in how they think.
On the left, the “Big Lies” — things that non-innovators fail to understand correctly. On the right the attitudes that define how innovators think.

1st difference: innovators don’t fall for the big lies

Being innovative requires a deep understanding of the world we live in. Innovators don’t fall for what I call the “Big Lies”:

  • Everybody loves innovation
    Someone who innovates will have to face those who wanted to do the same thing, those who wanted to do the opposite, and the immense number of people who didn’t want anything to change.
  • Everybody is an innovator
    Large organizations will often launch programs that will require every employee to become an innovator. But few people have what it takes to deal with the uncertainties and risks that come with innovation.
  • Innovating is easy
    Innovation is one of the most mysterious, most complicated things there is. It is not a process, it is not a project. It is a culture.
  • Innovation goes too fast
     Innovation is painfully slow! It’s 2016 and we are still traveling at sub sonic speed some 50 years after Concorde was brought into service.
  • You can’t control anything
     Things are much more controllable than it seems. Companies like Uber, Google or Amazon constantly rewrite the rules of the field they helped pioneer.
  • You need to innovate first
    Peter Thiel famously said that rather than be the first mover you want to be the last mover. Google is the last search engine, Facebook the last social network.
  • Winner takes all
    The 21st century has certainly brought a lot of concentration, but the online world, that many believe is incredibly concentrated, is actually quite fragmented. Google does not succeed in China, Russia or Korea.
  • Don’t trust anyone
    The opposite is now true: the more open you are, the more you share, the more you win.
  • Money innovates
    Apple had one third of the R&D budget of Nokia in the years leading to the release of the iPhone. Money does not innovate, period.
  • Innovation = technology
    We tend to forget that technological innovation is not the only form of innovation. There is business model innovation (good examples are Easyjet/Southwest), processes, product, service or channel innovation.
  • Innovation forces a complete reinvention
    Innovation raises fundamental questions for organizations: Who are we? What is our added value? Who are our clients? If anything innovation is a mirror.
  • Hype covers your ass
    Hype is one of the worst possible compasses, because what’s spectacular is not necessarily effective. Don’t believe the hype, or you will end up on a Segway wearing Google glasses.
  • It all starts with an idea
    Don’t wait for the elusive “killer idea” before you start innovation. The problem is not the lack of ideas, it is execution. And the abundance of ideas.
  • Innovation requires experience
    No candle-maker has become a bulb manufacturer, no carriage-maker has become a car producer, and the post office did not invent the email. Tesla did not exist 15 years ago.

2nd difference: the way innovators think

This is how innovators think and behave.

  • Treat success as a challenge
    Success is a challenge. What makes people comfortable actually leads to fear of change and lack of hunger.
  • Change when things are good
    You need to change when things are good, when money still flows and investment in the future is still possible.
  • Try more often
    Eric Schmidt or Jeff Bezos will tell you that to hit homeruns what really matters is that someone throws the ball at you as often as possible.
  • Don’t fight the inevitable
    Instead of wasting precious resources trying to prevent the inevitable from happening, try to understand where the world is taking you, and find out what your place is in the new order of things.
  • Always fight positively
     If someone attacks your business model, outsmart or out-innovate them. The only way to compete with Uber is not to pass laws that will only slow their growth; it is to offer a better, cheaper, more pervasive service.
  • Protect the future
    Businesses have to choose between protecting the future from the past and protecting the past from the future.
  • Learn from the past
    The past is full of clues about how the future will unfold, look at it to find the relevant patterns.
  • Cannibalize yourself
    If something you do is eating your previous business, do more of it, not less!
  • Unlearn, relearn
    As Alvin Toffler said, if you can’t unlearn and relearn in the 21st century, you are basically illiterate.
  • Enjoy uncertainties
    The world is moving in many directions and has become very unpredictable. You can measure the level of innovation of an organization by its capacity to bear uncertainties.
  • Listen without obeying
    Innovators consider constructive critiques to be an opportunity to learn new things and turn an unhappy customer into a believer. Star CEOs like Jeff Bezos or Craig Newmark routinely answer customer complaints over email. They listen, but don’t obey.
  • Eat your own dog food
    To understand your clients you need to live the life of your clients.
  • Learn the barbarians’s language
    You can’t pretend to fight digital attackers if you don’t speak their language. Not keeping yourself informed on today’s world is a pact with the devil that will even prevent people from helping you.
  • Ignore your competitors
    Innovators can’t care less about what their competitors are doing.
  • Focus on vision and data
    We tend to think the world is divided into people that have a strong vision on one side (think Steve Jobs), and people who have tons of data on the other side (Google). Innovators have both: vision and data.

The only way to innovate is to change how you think

Understanding the world we live in and adopting the correct mindset will allow you to develop a true culture of innovation, the first and most fundamental step in making any organization innovative.

Innovation is both super simple and super complicated. Super simple because anyone, anywhere can innovate. Complicated because it is not a thing, nor a process or a project: it is a culture.


If you would like to continue the discussion on how innovators think, join the project’s Facebook group here. You can also join the mailing list to receive an email when the book comes out.

This project is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Gebert Rüf Stiftung. I would like to thank the following people for their time and contributions: Philipp Egger, Bernard Sabrier, Jacques De Saussure, Christian Wanner, Pierre Maudet and Caroline Widmer, Ellen Ichters, Daniel Borel, Alain Nicod, Aymeric Sallin, the members of the project’s Facebook group, Neal Pawar and his team at AQR, Alan Kay, the people of MKS, Jefferson Hack, Tim O’Reilly, Amy Killoren, Toni Schneider, Alex Osterwalder, Anais St Jude and Bruce Cahan of Stanford, and the dozens of innovators I was blessed to meet over the past 20 years.