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Disruptive innovators: Born or bred?

 The term ‘disruptive innovation’ has gained considerable momentum within the business world recently, and we are now seeing ‘newbies’ evolve and disrupt ‘business as usual’ and dominate the marketplace. As more businesses join the innovation revolution, and transform their sectors, we ask ‘what makes a successful innovator?’  

Is it nature?

 Often people choose their roles based on their personality and tend to do things they are comfortable with. Some may go on to develop their careers in roles such as marketing, law and accountancy, and there’s a place for all kinds of people in the business world. In my experience, businesses are run by a diverse set of individuals. I first arrived at this conclusion during my tenure as president of the UK’s largest chamber of commerce, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. During my time as president, I met with many successful entrepreneurs including local leaders of global companies, such as Andrew Tinkler, CEO of Stobart Group, Steve Purdham, founder of SurfControl, Phil Jones MBE, managing director of Brother UK, as well as Jennie Johnson, founder of Kids Allowed, who’s successfully grown her award winning business locally.

When it comes to success, some experts argue that it’s in a person’s genes. Entrepreneurs, it’s argued, are simply wired in a certain way, born with a natural advantage when it comes to business. And society needs those few who are strong-minded and are born to take risks and lead.

Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, suggests some people are born to be ‘alpha wolves’ - the ones who will lead the pack - while others aren’t destined to be innovators. Some people have the ability and confidence to take risks, whereas others naturally shy away from the possibility of failure. Shane goes even further, saying that genes don't just influence whether a person will start a business, but may even determine how much money a person will earn.

Organisational psychologist, Adam Grant, believes that some people are born to be ‘original thinkers’. These people tend to be moderate procrastinators and are regarded as more creative than those who rush to be the first and do everything early – the precrastinators. Grant argues that ‘procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps’. Original thinkers tend to be quick to start, but slow to finish, often as they spend more time making their ideas different and better. He argues that procrastination, often considered as an established vice for productivity, is actually a virtue for creativity. They can look at the default way of doing things, and aren’t afraid to ask whether there is a better option. ‘Originals’ do feel fear of failure, however, it’s their fear of failing to try that sets them apart from everyone else.

Or is it nurture?

On the flip side of the argument, a person’s environment and experiences are said to have more of an impact on their levels of success. Some people may be born with a higher IQ, but the ability to learn constantly changes throughout our lives. Learning is an important part of the achievement process and what goes on in the classroom plays a huge part. If children are given the means to learn and are put in an environment that encourages their development, then they are more likely to do well and go on to achieve great things. Whereas, if children are in an environment where education is poor or access is limited, then their levels of success and development will be lower – even if they were born with higher levels of intellect. This is because they haven’t been given the same opportunities to succeed.

In her TED talk, Angela Lee Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, agrees that those with the passion to work extremely hard to achieve very long term goals are the ones that are more likely to excel well above their peers. These people will not simply accept defeat or failure, instead this will spur them on even further to achieve what they set out to do. This is something she calls ‘grit’. ‘Grit’ isn’t necessarily related to measures of talent or IQ, but rather it’s more about mindset and the idea that the ability to learn is not fixed – our ability to learn can change depending on how much effort we put into our own personal development. 

Some would also argue it’s all about experience and the things we go through during our lives that shape who we become later on. Writer and journalist, Malcolm Gladwell, writes in his book titled ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ that ‘it’s not enough to ask what successful people are like. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't.’ In Gladwell’s opinion, family, culture, and friendship each play a role in an individual's success. Those from well-off, well-educated backgrounds are more likely to be given the opportunities to develop the intelligence needed for success. Take Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates, for example. Due to the fact Gates’ mother was on the board of directors at IBM, he had unique access to a computer during a time when few other people did. Gladwell argues that without this access, Gates would still be highly intelligent and driven, but he may not have had the opportunity that has made him as hugely successful as he is today.

However, for Gladwell, the ultimate key to success lies in the amount of experience a person has in a particular area or skill – 10,000 hours of it to be exact. He claims that greatness requires a considerable amount of time, and reaching the 10,000-hour rule is simply a matter of practicing a specific task with 20 hours of work a week for 10 years. For example, The Beatles built up over 10,000 hours of playing time from 1960 to 1964, therefore meeting the 10,000-hour rule and contributing to their worldly success. Like Angela Duckworth, he argues that you’re not just born to be successful, you have to earn it and work at it.  

So what does makes a successful innovator?

Some experts would tell you there is no equation or definite quality that will guarantee success. It’s a mixture of a number of elements - experience, intellect, education, opportunity, and particular personality traits all have their part to play. Innovators come from all backgrounds, and success is not confined to one particular group of people. Innovation itself is more a concept that’s made up of lots of different components that can’t necessarily be measured, including prototyping, risk, effectiveness, experimentation, creativity, design, and even failure.

So rather than looking at whether leaders were born or made to be successful, it’s more about whether they understand the ecology of change and innovation, and if they can apply this to their own business. This applies to all businesses, large and small. Usually something needs to happen to drive forward change, such as new and emerging technology, changes to the economy, the shifting needs of customers, or amendments in legislation. And it’s individuals’ reactions to these challenges and changes that remains crucial.

When something happens that shakes up the status quo, the event may at first appear destructive, or a cause for concern. However, further down the line this may develop into something different that triggers an opportunity for progress. For example, I know from my first career in cardiovascular research that when a small heart attack happens, it triggers long term protection that helps the body prepare itself against larger heart attacks. It is actually considered by many scientists to be a protective event, outweighing the ‘acute destruction’ it initially brings.

Extending this analogy to a business setting, the instabilities in our economy, such as less bank lending, rising migration, and heightened government debt, are the very triggers that will prompt businesses to evolve and thrive. Just like with the small heart attack, something disruptive needs to happen to trigger the need for change, and it’s how leaders deal with these challenges that will determine their success. Leaders should be thinking about why the change has come about, how it will affect their sector, and crucially, how the business can adapt to create an advantage to deliver greater success.

Inevitably, if leaders continue with ‘business as usual’ throughout periods of change, then they’ll be left playing catch up. Their businesses will fall victim to pressures and challenges, and this will have a destructive effect on them, whereas others will see it as an opportunity to thrive. There is no definitive answer as to whether innovators are born or made, each success story is different and stems from a different trigger. However, when it comes to innovation, there are usually three kinds of people – those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.

Dr Moneeb Awan is the managing director of WorkMobile, an award winning cloud and mobile data capture service.