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The Three Superhero Powers Of Great Innovators — And How You Can Use Them

After more than two decades of working alongside some of the world’s best innovators—people at companies large and small who have not only reshaped their organizations but their industries—I got to thinking about what they have in common.

640x480-InnovMan-1So with a respectful nod to Stan Lee, I submit a short list of superhero powers every innovator should have.

Superhero Power #1: They Have X-Ray Vision

Most business people fall into the trap of thinking they are in a “What” business. They become so fixated on what they sell that their whole world revolves around a product or service instead of the people it is meant to serve.

Symptoms of this malady include product-focused sales goals, minimal to no consumer research, marketing and ads that focus on some super cool (and expensive) technology, and new products that are conceived by the people (agents, distributors, doctors and professors) who sell the “what” instead of the too-often-overlooked consumer or customer.

Innovators have x-ray vision. They easily look beyond the latest and greatest gizmos and outdated sales models to find underserved and underwhelmed people in the crowd.

Their x-ray vision (which turns out to be empathy) gives them the ability to focus on “who” not what, and consequentially allows them to imagine and create new products, services and business models that most businesses could never imagine in a million years, since they are focused on what they do as opposed to what customers (and potential customers) truly want.

Today, he who knows the consumer best and fastest wins, so you must push to move your business from a “What” business to a “Who” business by learning to understand the “whos” better than anyone in your category.

As Dr. Seuss may say: The doctor says he’s right but he doesn’t know, so it is to the consumer, yes to the consumer I must go. And if he says left, I won’t go right, even though my friends will scream with all their might.

(My sincere apologies to Dr. Seuss. Let’s move on to Superhero Power #2.)

Superhero Power #2: They See the Future

Innovators have the ability to imagine the future and then charge ahead toward making that vision a reality. They are not concerned about limited resources, limited experience or even limited amounts of encouragement; they are so committed to what they envision, they just start building. They build the bridge as they cross it.

While this enterprising style often gets them into trouble, it just as often gives them a competitive advantage over slower, more conservative competitors. Why? Because they may be on version eight of an idea before that play-it-safe competitor has mustered the guts to start building its first prototype. And with each attempt comes new lessons that make our superhero smarter and more emboldened.

The lesson? If you are a futurist, find yourself a pragmatic partner who can keep you focused and on strategy. If you’re more pragmatic, find a partner who can pull you toward the future. Walt Disney needed Roy. Bill Gates needed Paul Allen.

Superhero Power #3: They are Uber Curious

Show me an overly curious child and I’ll show you a future innovator. There is perhaps no greater superhero power than curiosity.

Why? Because in my experience, curious people are naturally grateful. They look for possibility. They expect good things to happen. They sense that opportunity is all around them. They look for treasure in every room, in every relationship and every challenge.

And since they are the ones looking for treasure, they are usually the ones who find it.

Back to Dr. Seuss (the real one this time):

“…And when things start to happen,

don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along.
You’ll start happening too.

You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.

Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?”

The lesson? Be grateful and curious. And if you can’t be, make sure you build a team of people that has enough curiosity to share. Turns out Dr. Seuss knew a thing or two about innovation.

First published on Forbes on September 18, 2012.

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