Critical Doer Deep Dive: Where Does Innovation Come From?


The critical doer understands that man does not live by ideas alone; it takes action to turn ideas into the innovations that improve life and build winning organizations.  In order to turn innovation into progress, there are some things a critical doer needs to understand about innovation.

Let’s begin with the origin of innovation.  If you were to distribute the members of any organization across a bell curve, the people would generally distribute according to this model and it teaches us some important things that enable critical doing.

Bell Curve


Way out in the fourth standard deviation is where the visionaries live, and their domain is the incubator of innovation.  The very small number of people that occupy this domain are often given labels like “outliers” (if you haven’t, you should read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers as it is very relevant to this discussion) and “free radicals” (giving you chills from your chemistry days).

Here is how you might recognize the free radicals and outliers in your organization that have the potential to be true innovators.  One indicator is a constant push for a new direction when things are seemingly going well and a need for a new direction is not yet apparent.  True innovators are also sometimes loners…a natural byproduct of swimming against the current.  A high tolerance for criticism is another trademark of a true innovator and a necessary survival skill.  Former NFL great and now broadcaster Kris Collinsworth said it best during a recent game:  “if you want to carry the football, you can’t be surprised when people try to tackle you.” One more indicator is a high energy level…an important trait that sets the true innovator apart from what I call a “speculator.”  A true innovator is very willing to do (as opposed to generating a “to do list” for others), even at great personal sacrifice.  You won’t catch this person using phrases like “somebody should…”, “why don’t they…”, “if only someone else…”.  A true innovator doesn’t defer the challenge or thrill of high achievement to others…a true innovator is very willing to do.

These folks truly understand innovation, which should be distinguished from improvement of something that already exists.  The 0.26 percent who are true innovators see opportunities before there is a need, envision products before there is a demand, and just plain see things differently than the rest of us.

One of the most profound examples of innovators is the Wright Brothers.  The Wright Brothers saw powered flight as a possibility when very few across the planet shared their vision.  Anyone who believes Orville and Wilbur were surrounded by likeminded individuals cheering them on should think again.  The pressure had to be enormous from those who questioned their intelligence to those who felt threatened if should they succeed.  But they knew powered flight could not be achieved simply by improving the bicycle…it would take an airplane, and their innovation changed the world.

When the airplane was invented, there was no demand signal.  No one had designs for air travel, air freight, or military applications.  The Wright Brothers had a vision of a world that could be; and despite the critics, cynics, and challenges, they forged ahead.  They were right, and nearly everyone else on the planet was wrong.  This should give you an indication of the nature of a true innovator.  But innovators aren’t the only type of person required to bring a vision to life.

In the next two standard deviations we find an interesting lot.  Sometimes they are identified as innovators but in reality they are bridge builders.  Typically this 27 percent of an organization is not the one to see an alternative future but once they do, their mix of vision and practicality takes something abstract and transforms it into something real.  There is another special talent that this demographic possesses…the ability to use communication to build on-ramps for innovation.

The ultimate talent of the bridge builders is the ability to find on-ramps for innovation to merge into the highway of today.  In successfully facilitating a merge onto the main highway, the bridge builders are addressing two interests…the future and the present.  The innovators paint on the canvas of the future, consensus paints on the canvas of today.  In other words, the bridge builder successfully explains “what this means to me” in order to achieve buy in from their organization…which leads us to consensus.

Here are some insights on recognizing the bridge builders in your organization.  Bridge builders are natural explainers…they have a knack for grasping complex ideas and then translating them into everyday language so the vast majority can understand them.  Bridge builders are also naturally curious and you’ll see them everywhere, equally enthusiastic, engaged in a full spectrum of activities from the theoretical to the mechanical (the translation skills).  Bridge builders may not be the ones to figure out the future, but they can recognize it and construct a path to it from the present.  Through spanning the full spectrum of people and activities, it shouldn’t be surprising that you find a high concentration of these folks in leadership positions.

In the first standard deviation where 68 percent of an organization’s people live, we find the domain of consensus.  Innovation may come from the outliers in the fourth standard deviation, but organizational progress comes through consensus.  No matter how brilliant an idea, no matter how well it is communicated, progress is not made until the members of consensus can grasp the idea, see what it means to them, and actually do the work.  The power of this concept should not be underestimated.  I’m sure you have many stories, as do I, where good ideas that could have led to great benefit never saw the light of day because there was not an effective on-ramp to bring innovation into the world of work.

As you can tell by the labels and tagline on the chart, here’s where I differ from most people on the idea of innovation.  Most write about innovation from a personal perspective and tend to elevate the status of those they regard as innovators over others.  Doing so is a slippery slope that often leads to underperforming organizations.  I really do bristle when I hear folks in the consensus demographic addressed disparagingly…meaningful progress does not occur without them.

Fact of the matter is…labels are poison that limit organizational and individual achievement.  It’s not for the purpose of parsing or developing a reward system that I’ve developed an innovation model that classifies strengths in driving innovation, rather it’s to show that every member of an organization has a valuable and necessary role to play in bringing innovation to life.

Here then, is the full articulation of the model.  Innovation comes from the visionaries while organizational progress comes from consensus.  It is the job of a critical doer, one who puts critical thinking into action, to use communication as a bridge building tool.  Done effectively, this creates an on-ramp to merge innovation onto the highway of consensus…and progress.

on ramps

Change is hard, as many authors have pointed out.  Even if the path to innovation and organizational progress is apparent, critical thinking alone will not turn potential energy into kinetic energy.  It takes a critical doer who understands why, understands time, possesses strength of character, controls what is theirs to control, capitalizes on opportunities to be better, attacks problems from the inside out, understands leading and following, possesses a servant spirit, understands and is willing to take risk, and above all committed to thinking and doing to unlock the full potential of ideas, individuals, and organizations.

It’s also important to see the generalizations I’ve made about where innovation comes from as a framework for recognizing, embracing, and capitalizing on collective strengths…not pointing out differences or in any way insinuating one is better than the other.  Anything worthwhile endeavor takes a team, and the critical doer ensures all members of the team contribute where their strengths are best suited and credit for the output is celebrated as a common achievement.  Remember, the person running apart from the herd may be the one with the key to the future.  Conversely, the ones you believe are stuck in the past are the ones that will build the bridges and figure out the details that bring innovation to life.

As always, I’m going to leave you with a challenge to do something.  Take a fresh look at a situation, whether it’s at home or work, and see if the contributions of the entire team are being used to do great deeds that benefit many, or if capability is being lost because the value of each team member is either misunderstood or marginalized (the good news is both cases are rarely intentional).  If that situation exists, you’ve likely already done the thinking required to develop a workable solution.  It’s time now to make the leap from critical thinker to critical doer and take the first step to bring your solution to life.

It’s what a critical doer would…do!

Updated: January 5, 2015 — 10:07 am