If I had a penny for every time I told myself I am not an innovator, then I would indeed be wealthy. Sound familiar? I carried this view for the first 15 years of my professional career despite getting multiple degrees in electrical engineering, inventing novel circuits, starting new businesses and leading many exciting projects. I was not the deep researcher who discovered breakthroughs, or the designer who created compelling experiences, or the zealous entrepreneur who thrived on risking everything to start something new.
I finally tired of carrying this heavy and worn frame around. In its absence, I started to observe something that was rather interesting. Around me and through me great innovations were happening even though most of the original ideas were not mine. My contribution was to reduce the barriers to making these innovations real and so I borrowed a distinction from chemistry and named my role “innovation catalyst.” I take ideas created by others and with them, design something that the world can embrace and carry forward. The most important ingredient to grow any idea is amazing people; I have surrounded myself with the best of the best. My role was so intertwined with my identity that I did not see it or acknowledge it. Pablo Picasso’s quote “Every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain an artist after you grow up” applies to the innovator in each of us as well.
My revelation came in an odd way. I was asked to participate in a mentoring program for young employees where executives present a past career dilemma as a case study. The employees then form teams to debate and select “the right choice.” Not one of the teams made the choice I made to abandon engineering, right after getting my Masters, to pursue a new business opportunity that I had stumbled on while at Berkeley. As I listened to their logical conclusions I realized that I made this decision from a different place. The opportunity to catalyze something new was so compelling that I saw no other choice but to pursue it. It dawned on me that I had been making choices to follow this thread unconsciously for most of my life.
Acknowledging my role as an innovation catalyst opened my eyes. I started to notice and appreciate the diversity of roles from the mad scientists, to the tinkerers and the optimizers. I realized that I had allowed famous innovators, like Steve Jobs, to narrow my view. One of my responsibilities in Singapore was to instill an innovative mindset yet I was the student as I watched how they optimized complex products. In the Innovator’s DNA, the authors advocate that you can optimize your approach to innovation to increase your impact. The five discovery skills outlined in the book (associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting) provide a great way to think about a few of the most common innovation roles. The most important step, the first step, is to stop questioning whether you are an innovator. Then you can distinguish and hone your innovation role.