Tuesday 3 May 2022

Why warring personalities are crucial for innovation

Why were the Wright brothers the first to invent the aeroplane? Perhaps because there were two of them, and because they fought all the time.

Wilbur and Orville Wright, from wikimedia commons
Anyone who is interested in innovation should visit the Basadur Applied Creativity site. There you will find some very interesting models for the innovation cycle, but also a really useful model about the character traits required for innovation. They also offer an online (paid) service for assessing the creativity styles of your team.

Basadur recognise 4 main types of person needed for innovation:

  • The Generators are the big thinkers - the ones who spot a potential untapped area, a gap in the market, or a new innovation opportunity. They find problems.
  • The Conceptualisers are the ones who like to work with a problem until they fully understand the forces at work, and the possible ways in which the problem might be addressed. They understand problems.
  • The Optimisers are the people who like to look for solutions, and to fix things. They solve problems.
  • The Implementers are the people who like to get things done. They implement solutions.
You need all 4 types of people within the creativity cycle, if a problem-solving idea is to be created, understood, solved and implemented.

However these people are very different in outlook and working style, and friction between them is common. 

The Generators and Optimisers do not understand each other at all. Once is looking for problems, the other for solutions. They find each other frustrating to work with. The Conceptualisers and Implementers also are chalk and cheese. One is pressing for deadlines, the other saying "hang on, we don't understand what we are dealing with yet". Each is a source of huge exasperation for the other.

This is one of the reasons why lone creators are so rare; they tend to represent only one of the four types above, and therefore look at only one aspect of the innovation cycle. Innovation is a team activity, and to be successful you need a balanced and well managed team with LOADS of creative friction and tension.

And that may be why the Wright brothers won the race for powered flight. They were brothers, they had contrasting personalities, and they argued like anything.

According to Notable Biographies

"Their personalities were perfectly complementary; each provided what the other lacked. Orville was full of ideas and enthusiasms. Wilbur was more steady in his habits, more mature in his judgments, and more likely to see a project through".

And according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum

"Relying on each other's strengths and compensating for each other's weaknesses was crucial to their invention of the airplane. Neither probably could have achieved alone what they did as a team. “I like scrapping with Orv,” Wilbur said, “he’s such a good scrapper.” Heated discussions were a frequent and significant aspect of the Wrights’ creative process. Their ability to defend a position with genuine passion, while considering the other’s point of view, was essential to their inventive success".

Orville was a Conceptualiser, Wilbur was an Implementer, and they managed their creation tension through a brotherly bond, heated arguments, and passionate "scrapping".

The challenge for any innovation team leader is to create a team with similar diverse character traits,  to build a bond as strong as the Wright brothers', and to manage the heated arguments and scraps that will surely be necessary as part of the creative process.

If you can do this, maybe you too can match the same level of success the Wright brothers demonstrated.

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