The Varieties of Innovation Experience

If you have accepted ‘innovator’ as some part of your identity, what sort of innovator are you? I offer here a dictionary of personality types I’ve encountered in the 10 years I’ve been in the business, and offer some of my favorite examples from history. But before I let you have fun trying to recognize yourself in my list, a word of explanation is in order. I have always been unhappy with the usual definition of innovation — as invention successfully taken to market. This definition is of the sort David Foster Wallace calls “deeply trivial” (he coins that phrase in Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity and provides an elegant example: “because it is illegal” as an answer to the question, “why is it wrong to kill?”). So here we go: a better definition of innovation, and a taxonomy of innovation styles, with apologies to William James.

A Better Definition of Innovation

My definition of innovation is based on the notion of creative destruction, which I wrote about recently.

Innovation is deliberate, growth-oriented creative destruction in a social context.

It took me a while to come up with that. I decided several years ago that my personal definition of innovation was going to be based on creative destruction, since anything that I recognize as an innovation seems to have an element of that dynamic. But I was bothered by the fact that pretty much any activity destroys some, creates some. Even assembly-line drudge-work can be home to jury-rigged creative improvisation. For a while I thought I needed to add an arbitrary threshold (“sufficiently powerful” or some such), but that didn’t satisfy me. Then, reflecting on how weight training is about tearing down your muscles so they can rebuild stronger, made me add deliberate as the right qualification. Normal physical activity also tears down and rebuilds muscle, but weight training is a deliberate activity to that end. I added growth-oriented drawing inspiration from the same metaphor: athletes who weight-train make sure they drink protein shakes after working out, to make sure the reconstruction involves growth in muscle mass. Finally, I added in a social context, since you could imagine an isolated hermit-scholar-warrior growing his brain (and maybe his muscles) in the jungle, and to me it’s only innovation if your deliberate effort is directed outward, at the body politic, rather than yourself (Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, in Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention offers a social definition of creativity for similar reasons).

The Dictionary of Innovation Styles

The ideas of Hegel and Nietzsche (mangled, to be sure), gave us creative destruction on the scale of World War II (which gave us the holocaust, but also radar, space flight and jet engines). So let’s look around and inventory every personality type that can drive deliberate creative-destruction behaviors from that level down. You and I have no use for tepid distinctions like theorist and experimentalist, or engineer and scientist, which belong to the 19th century. This dictionary is far from complete, and even staying at this coarse level, there are many more types that could be added without getting into hierarchical refinement. But I’ll stop with the 18 I have on the list so far rather than hopelessly attempt to complete my inventory. In alphabetical order, here goes.

  1. Aesthete: Beauty has a place in innovation. An innovation is often in some way more beautiful than what it destroys and replaces. My own ideas about its role have to do with certain notions of symmetry and complexity. Prototype: Murray Gell-Mann, who reportedly said, “In fundamental physics, beauty is a very successful criterion for choosing the right theory.”
  2. Builder: Making innovation actually happen requires a phenomenal amount of energy, raw intelligence and the sheer energy and ambition for a serious fight. Prototype: Edison.
  3. Conceptual Architect: A synthesizer who takes an empty space of new possibilities, and imagines a whole constructible reality within it. Unlike the visionary, who is able to imagine a great deal of what can happen, synthesizers pick out a single reality that should and will happen. Prototype: Alan Kay (conceptualizer of the personal computing revolution, who famous remarked that the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it).
  4. Discoverer: A discoverer is somebody paying enough attention to what he/she is doing, and actually doing enough interesting things thoughtfully, to notice something special. The quintessential prepared mind that fortune favors. Prototype: Alexander Fleming, with runner-up Wilhelm Roentgen.
  5. Cross-preneur: The true decathlete among innovators, the cross-preneur has enough of the abilities in this dictionary (at amateurish levels) to nearly single-handedly cause innovation to occur in any context. I wrote about cross-preneurship in this piece. Prototype: Bill Gates.
  6. Craftsperson: Every creative-destruction revolution needs its foot-soldiers. The craftsperson is it. Since there are typically too many in a given revolution, they rarely get famous, and are basically significantly less-talented versions of the aesthetes. Prototype: Thomas Watson, who came when Graham Bell called, thus rising out of obscurity.
  7. Entrepreneur: A more limited version of the cross-preneur, this individual is also a decathlete who can amateurishly play enough of this entire list of roles to cause significant innovation to happen nearly single-handed. But unlike the cross-preneur, sticks to the open economy. Prototype: Edison (the only 2-category prototype)
  8. Entailment Architect: Once a foundationalist destroys an existing edifice of ideas, the entailment architect steps in and rebuilds a stronger one, by figuring out everything the rewired assumptions imply. Unlike the foundationalist, the entailment architect has the breadth to look at the whole and the precision to worry about the uninteresting, but important details. Prototype: Minkowski
  9. Foundationalist: Looks at the underlying assumptions of everything, and tears out and replaces weak ones. Prototype: Einstein, but my favorite is Claude Shannon.
  10. Genius: The genius — and no, Einstein wasn’t one — actually exists, and plays a role. The genius is simply that unique instrument who can just do things that nobody else can. Sometimes a necessary part of an innovation is just so phenomenally difficult to achieve that it takes a kind of concentrated mental horsepower within a single skull to keep all the pieces together long enough for a particular breakthrough to occur. Think of the genius as the containment chamber for a fusion reaction, capable of actually applying the enormous pressures and magnetic fields to make the reaction happen. Prototype: Richard Feynman.
  11. Intrapreneur: Like an entrepreneur, but peculiarly fond of the conditions inside a corporation, rather than in the open markets. Prototype: John Dessauer, of Xerox.
  12. Inventor: Again, this character from classical theories of innovation actually exists, and in pure form is more like a poet than anything else. Their signature attribute is an ability to tell Rube Goldberg contraption ideas apart from ideas that are worth more attention. Prototype: Chester Carlson, inventor of Xerography. Carlson is almost a comic-book character, try David Owen’s Copies in Seconds to see why Carlson was much more of a pure-bred inventor than even Edison.
  13. Leader: Much of this dictionary is about the technological side of innovation. But it takes a business leader to take that huge leap of faith and attempt to create a market that doesn’t exist yet. Prototype: Steve Jobs.
  14. Operationalizer: Foundationalists, Visionaries and both types of Architect in this dictionary have one thing in common: they don’t like ugliness. But mental models, no matter how powerful, are always finite, while reality has the two unpleasant features of being effectively infinite in its complexity, and peculiarly specific in the conditions it creates. Operationalizers don’t wait for ideal conditions, or worry about parts of reality that don’t fit the vision. They charge ahead, armed with duct-tape and just get it done, no matter how much the realization mars the beauty of the concept. Prototype: Robert Oppenheimer.
  15. Orchestrator: This is a very curious type of individual who occurs rarely in history — they are the catalysts who apparently contribute nothing directly to an innovation, but are actually instrumental in making things happen. I suspect the best venture capitalists are of this type. Prototype: Robert Taylor, who started by making the Internet happen at DARPA, and then, for an encore, making personal computing happen at PARC. They have the capacity to understand what visionaries, conceptual architects and entailment architects are saying, and the pragmatic mindset capable of creating conditions that allow the builders to actually create the potential impact.
  16. Priest: The priest, as a cultural archetype, is usually viewed as a preserver, rather than a creative-destroyer. In the world of innovation, you think of those who are religious about rigor and method, and usually very very good at being rigorous and methodical themselves. They rarely have that volatile, unbalanced mix of sloppy creativity and too much energy to cause large creative-destruction events, but when roped into a larger cataclysm, they are the ones who enable jury-rigged contraptions and half-baked ideas to be rebuilt solidly, and placed on the foundation of fully-baked ideas. Priests are enlightened technicians.
  17. Social Entrepreneur: Again, similar to the entrepreneur, but working with an innovative idea about human beings. Prototype: Gandhi.
  18. Visionary: Yes, people genuinely deserving of this title have existed. The most remarkable one in all history (and no, I am not exaggerating) was Vannevar Bush. He imagined the Internet and a lot more in the single most influential piece of popular science writing: As We May Think, published in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1945. But he was no armchair visionary: he was also among the founding fathers of control theory and computing, and was responsible for the key organizational features of modern American innovation, including a surprisingly impactful piece of bean-counterism: the indirect cost support model for research institutions. If you don’t know who he is, you are seriously undereducated about innovation, and you should subscribe to this blog and watch out for my upcoming piece about him. His contemporary and colleague, Norbert Wiener, was nearly as powerful a visionary (oddly he is better known — for Cybernetics, , but had less actual impact on the course of history).

I suppose there ought to be a lot more varieties on this list, but that’s it for now. For the record, there are a lot of Xerox-related examples on this list mainly because they come readily to mind for me, though some would end up on the list of prototypes no matter who was filling in the blanks.

What sort are you? Me, I don’t know yet.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Adrian Younger says

    Great commentary on innovation. Historic applications of innovation are inspiring. Now please share the contemporary practical experiences you have had innovatively in your business. The most and the least profitable experiences of innovation you initiated. A present day business case you are involved in. Children learn most from what you are doing versus saying! I am willing to learn, then buy you a cappucino :-)

    A Child of Innovation

  2. Thanks for visiting the FEI blog! We look foreword to hearing from you more!

  3. David Foster says

    Great Blog. Yes, I will happily buy you a cappuccino. Any ideas on what might constitute “Performance Measures and Indicators” for innovation? I recognize that these might become counterproductive but I will be attending a workshop in Hyderabad this week where folks will be brainstorming on precisely that issue. The hope is that if various research labs around the country begin trying to “Benchmark” their performance according to some mutually accepted measures that it might promote more rapid and more successful innovation.

  4. Hmm… the metrics issue is one I’ve always been ambivalent about, because for every metric, you can always find egregious alpha and beta errors (junk that ranks high, gold that ranks low). But so long as you keep the caveats in mind, some of my own favorite measures:

    1. 3M’s “Percentage of revenue coming from innovations in the last 5 years” (they like to keep that at 50%)

    2. Number of citations (for journal articles)

    3. Grabowski ratio (which I recently discovered) = M/E; marketing spend to RD&E spend ratio. Apparently, M/E near 1 makes companies very successful in commercializing products

    4. RD&E spend as a percentage of revenue/turnover (this is a standard metric Wll street looks at, and has expectations for, depending on sector)

    There’s a lot more, but the metrics have to be carefully designed and picked according to the needs of the particular innovation entity (be it the NSF, India’s UGC, a company or a university). I am pessimistic about the utility of any broad metrics that could be used as benchmarking measures across an entire economy.

    And thanks for the cappuccino, much appreciated fuel!

  5. David Foster says

    Thanks Venkat, that is an amazingly quick turn around and valuable input.

    Now let me ask another perhaps more sensitive question relating to the Indian Innovation “DNA”. While the U.S., UK and Germany long revered the idea of a “Gentleman Tinkerer” (Think Ben Franklin and his kite), popular wisdom holds that this model was largely absent in India. In fact, Gucharon Das holds that it was not until computer software was in big demand that Bramans finally found a trade that both was worthy of their talents and kept their hands clean. Others have suggested that one reason that India (unlike China) has focussed on IT and Pharmaceuticals is because these sectors were less dependent on good reliable infrastructure.

    Clearly your story about Tata shows that India is not only concerned with IT and BPO but it also leaves unanswered the question of whether Caste has some role in the Indian Innovation DNA?

  6. David Foster says

    Thanks Venkat. You have really made me a fan of the Grabowski Ratio. I believe that we need to stress, however, that we are not simply talking about “spending” as much on Marketing as we do on R&D but rather integrating outward looking marketing specialists into the very culture of the R&D program.

    As I think of it, having a group of scientists all vulnerable to “inventor itis” dominating the show is rather like a “Circulat Firing Squad”, not as immediate, perhaps, but just as deadly.

    In sum, I now believe that paying attention to the Grabowski Ratio is not only important for any research organization but particularly important in India.



  7. David — yes, your clarification on the ‘M’ in the Grabowski ratio is very important.

    For your previous question, on the connection to the caste system, a quick response:

    1. Yes, though there has been invention in Indian history, it is nowhere near the invention culture of Europe, America or China.

    2. Yes, an argument could be made that this is partly attributable to the historical stewards of the intellectual traditions, the brahmins being averse to getting their hands dirty.

    3. More likely, it is likely that the explanation for the lack of inventiveness among brahmins has less to do with what they didn’t like to do, and more with what they did like to instead: metaphysics, hermeneutics, logic, rhetoric. The historical technical domains where the brahmin intellectual culture was active (arithmetic, proto-algebra and astronomy) actually were a minority tradition compared to, for instance, the dominant interests like Vedanta-vs.-Buddhist metaphysical debates.

    4. Non-brahmin cultures: these didn’t develop an invention-oriented culture either (at least not comparable to elsewhere). This can probably be partly, but not wholly attributed to suppression by Brahmin elites (the famous Ekalavya story in the Mahabharata is often cited here as allegorical evidence). There are also fundamental intrinsic and environmental factors. Debates around this tend to be very contentious. Modern Dalit intellectuals tend to blame everything on upper-caste oppression, while modern-day Brahmins tend to adopt a mix of apology, defensiveness and legitimate reconstruction of what they view as a false popular perception of caste. The scholars to look to here are actually European — Norman Kotz and Louis Dumont have written classic treatises on caste in India. Among the interesting arguments there is that the rigidity of modern caste is actually attributable to the reductive/rigidifying “management by anthropological definition” governance model of the British.

    I tend to be agnostic about this stuff because there is a LOT of very very subtle historical analysis involved here, with discourses conducted in a politically volatile atmosphere.

    Full disclosure: I am Brahmin (though personally atheist and entirely un-engaged in modern Brahmin culture).

    Interesting topic, and I’d write about it, except that I am not interested in sparking flame wars in my blog’s comments section :)


  8. I have always thought in terms of a simpler framework with three personalities: the visionary, the pragmatist (operationalist), and the salesman. Did I miss it in your list, or are you missing the salesman role? Ultimately, as history has attested many times, there is no innovation without someone to sell its merits.

  9. Good point JB. The ‘orchestrator’ in my list comes closest to a sales person, but this is still internal sales/wooing/persuasuasion. Not market-sales. I strongly agree with your assessment, but I guess I still am old fashioned enough that I draw a logical boundary between the innovation and sales functions, unless there is some new element in the selling process itself (for example, the original Xerox copier was as much as selling innovation as it was a technical innovation).

    I do think one ‘sales-like’ role is missing in my list, which I would probably call “market strategist.” This ties in with the subject of the Grabowski ratio, which I covered recently as well. If I ever polish up this piece into V 2.0, I’ll add that. This is a person who has the ability to segment non-existent new markets, profile non-existent new customers, and pick the strategic entry sequence and timing. Not sure who I’d pick as the classic example though — possibly Edison again.