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Introverts and Innovation: Unlocking the Full Potential

January 17, 2013 15inno 11 Comments

According to Wikipedia, the modern perception is that introverts tend to be more reserved and less outspoken in groups. They often take pleasure in solitary activities such as reading, writing and using computers. An introvert is likely to enjoy time spent alone and find less reward in time spent with large groups of people, though he or she may enjoy interactions with close friends.

It is important to notice that introversion is not seen as being identical to shy or to being a social outcast. Introverts simply prefer solitary activities to social ones.

I am an introvert and I am not alone. Many of us work in the innovation space.

Although, we should be careful in stereotyping by personality, I think it is worth looking into the intersection of introverts and innovation as we enter the social era. In terms of innovation, this means that more and more of the innovation efforts will happen in communities either in the b2c form of crowdsourcing or in the b2b form of innovation networks, alliances and challenges. These communities will also be physical as well as virtual.

What does this mean for introverts? At first, this sounds like a mismatch because introverts prefer solitarity rather than communities. However, I also think that introverts posses some qualities and capabilities that will be highly valued as we are about to get even more connected than ever on our innovation efforts.

In this post, I would like to share my overall views on introverts and innovation. Here we go:

Reflection is an important, but forgotten capability. It is often said that introverts get more energy through reflection and that it dwindles during interaction. Well, we need more reflection. There is too much action in this fast paced world and when it comes to ideas and innovation, the best results seem to come when you take a break and reflect on the problems you are trying to solve.

Unfortunately, the corporate structures and external forces in general just don’t give us this time. Hopefully, this will change and then we can start getting different and often outcomes by reflection done by not only introverts, but by everyone in the company.

Organizational structures need to make room for introverts. With the exception of a few pockets such as R&D and accounting most functions within a company seem to be driven with an extrovert-like attitude. But not all people are social. Many are introverts and don’t necessarily want to socialize and focus on external matters. What about them?

I think companies need to take a broader approach on diversity and this includes introverts. Organizations must start recognizing the constraints and the capabilities of introverts and build processes and approaches that better fit their ways of working in order to tap their full potential. The key word here is balance. Even though we are moving towards a more connected world in which more focus on the customer and the market is a good thing, we need to make room for people who act and think differently.

The innovation process is a good example. The traditional R&D function (usually introverted) is under significant pressure to open up and we are now seeing that you can get more attention by being a strong communicator rather than being a skilled (often introverted) innovator.

I advice innovators to develop their communication skills, but we must not forget that strong communicators do not necessarily come up with the best ideas or solutions or ask the right questions. Innovation leaders need to make sure everyone is heard during the process and sometimes they must sacrifice speed for better input. This is particular important as we are moving towards a more holistic kind of innovation (business model innovation) in which we must listen to all functions and even embrace external input.

Introverts must learn to turn on the switch. As stated earlier, I am an introvert myself. To be honest, I dread the socializing at large events and I do what I can to limit my meetings. Well, on the latter, I think it is fair to say that far too many meetings either take too long or should never have taken place at all. The matters could have been dealt with in more effective ways than a meeting. Introvert or not.

But when I need to interact with others in the physical world, I have trained myself to turn on a switch that allows me to be a good networker (ask questions, focus on the other person) and deliver good talks. I would actually argue that introverts are capable of becoming better networkers than most other people because we are more likely to define a purpose and execute on this before we interact like this.

We need to develop the softer skills. Yes, it is kind of a cliché that soft skills such as networking, communication and “people skills” are really the hard skills, but this does not change the fact that too many companies fail to educate their employees on this. More importantly; they don’t give the employees the time needed to develop these skills. Those who want to succeed in the social era need to change this.

Social media works well for introverts. You can “hide” and still have a strong voice in your community or industry. This is one reason that I spent so much time with social media. It is a great way to communicate and since there is so much input (some call this information overload), it gives you plenty of opportunities to reflect on what is happening and thus build further on your own thoughts and ideas. Social media makes it easier for introverts to become more social. It is a win for everyone.

Introverts can challenge the crowd. Since most introverts shy away from the crowd, they often see the crowd in a different perspective. We need all perspectives when we work with innovation and good innovation leader make an effort to recognize this and thus pay extra attention to listen to the more “quiet” introverts.

I don’t think introverts and innovation is a mis-match, but we need to make some adjustments (organizations as well as individuals) in order to unlock the full potential.

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Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. Allison says:

    This is a lovely article Stefan, insightful and educational, thank you.
    Two things spring to mind from it……..
    – when developing skills, be mindful that it's not done at the expense of diluting your strengths
    – for any team, project or business to do well, we need to be mindful of all personality types
    Thank you

    • Stefan Lindegaard says:

      Hi Allison, thanks for your comments. I try to focus on developing my strengths rather than improving my weaknesses. This is of course a balance, but I think this approach is most valuable to me in many ways.

  2. Seth says:

    Stefan, I really enjoyed this post. Making sure everyone is heard in the innovation process, as you highlight, is critical. Additionally, your remarks reminded me of a talk given by Susan Cain at TED (The Power of Introverts) which I recently viewed for a second time. I've included the link below for your readers.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0KYU2j0TM4

    Many thanks!
    Seth

  3. Stefan Lindegaard says:

    Hi Seth, glad you liked it! Great that you added the link to Susan Cain's talk. Several people have mentioned her and her work after I posted this. Thanks!

  4. Jon Turino says:

    Very nice article.

  5. paul4innovating says:

    A thoughtful, honest and nicely stated position and view- thanks

  6. Patricia Palacios says:

    Excellent and wise view of an introvert. Thanks for the post.

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  8. elliaoninnovation says:

    Stefan, as usual, you've got us thinking (I guess I'm an introvert)! This is a great focus on a segment of workers that might participate in creative problem-solving and aligns with two tenets that I strive to follow as much as possible:

    – Ensure diversity in creative thinking groups; I invite everyone from the receptionist to other dept members, vendors and board members (and provide the ground rule that all voices are equal… and enforce it rigorously)

    – As facilitator, it is my job to cater for all thinking styles; this includes giving people space to think, and regularly checking in with everyone to invite them to contribute

  9. L A Murray says:

    As a library professional I spend a great deal of time with introverts, both patrons and colleagues. I am extroverted, a performer of sorts and my ideas which occur lightening quick also arrive out of my mouth at the same rate. When I am on ON, this is great. I sound like a little like Robin Williams (sans adderall) and the magic of timing and silliness catches people off-guard and both surprises and tickles them.

    This magic is the same feeling I get when I am the recipient of well-thought out and measured words and thoughts. I feel privileged that someone who is looking inward allows me a peek too. It is as if I am standing beside the introverted person and viewing their ideas. I know that this is the place where poetry must come from. My best friend is an "innie" and I lovingly refer to her as Brain from the cartoon Pinky and the Brain. When she is having a bad day I say, "Gee, Brain, whaddaya wanna do tonight?" and she answers, "Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try and take over the world." (thank you imdb.com, Dolby and Spielberg)

  10. I cheered the entire time I read this article Stefan! Perfect, example of how confident introverts can successfully navigate either the working world or life in general.

    I especially resonated with this point:

    "I think companies need to take a broader approach on diversity and this includes introverts. Organizations must start recognizing the constraints and the capabilities of introverts and build processes and approaches that better fit their ways of working in order to tap their full potential. "

    I am a former HR Manager and personally experienced (myself and my staff) the resistance to recognize the very strong capabilities of introverts. It takes a lot of confidence to push against this tide in most companies but I do believe that this is starting to change. Education is key and is my mission.

    Great article. This should sent to anyone that hires or manages staff.

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