A few months before I was named Chief Innovation Officer (CInO), all of the employees at the life insurance company had received a laminated “strategy map” to hang in their work spaces. Centered in the bottom third of the strategy map were seven words that would significantly shape my job duties: “Create a Culture of Innovation, Collaboration, and Trust.” This was one of the primary objectives of my job as CInO, and it was on display for all employees to see.

It took the CEO and executive leadership team three months from the development of the strategy map to decide that they would appoint me, in the capacity of CInO, to lead this charge of creating a culture of innovation, collaboration, and trust. Thrilled at the opportunity to lead innovation efforts at this multi-national insurer, I jumped right in – ready to convert conference rooms to innovation spaces, to hire a talented team of innovators, and to get to work on shaping a cutting-edge innovation strategy. I wasn’t prepared for what followed after the announcement: Employees from all across the organisation began sending me their ideas.

It was flattering to receive ideas from employees I didn’t know, who worked in offices I wasn’t aware existed, but I had no way to determine whether any of these ideas were, in any way, genius. With the first dozen, I responded by tracking down a leader or a team that might be interested in executing the idea. Two problems emerged. First, the ideas didn’t stop coming – my response strategy would prove too time consuming. And second, this tactic wasn’t effective. The leaders and teams I forwarded these ideas to were not eager to run with them. Their plates were already full, and in many cases the ideas I sent them were not novel ones.

I pulled together my small team to help me figure out why this pattern was occurring. What we determined was that the notion of a “culture of innovation” was being associated with (dare I say confused with) “ideation.” As trained innovators, my team knew that great ideas are a function of great problem definition, and that ideation is a single, small step in the large, complex process of innovation. Our organisation lacked the know-how to connect ideas and people, and to vet ideas against predefined success criteria. My small team would have to turn attention to building the organisational competency of connection.

The late Tupac Shakur once rapped, “Even the genius asks his questions.”

Genius is not exclusively defined by a lightbulb moment in which an inventor stumbles upon a novel idea. It frequently centers around the ability to connect people and ideas to solve a pressing problem through inquiry. In a complex organisation, innovation occurs when several potential solutions to well-defined problem areas are vetted against business viability filters. By leveraging the archetype of the Connector, innovators don’t need to wait for, or rely upon, some lone creative genius to inspire the next breakthrough innovation. Genius is not required.

Eight Traits of the Connector Archetype

Organisations do not typically hire for job functions specifically dedicated to creativity, ideation, collaboration, or connection. These activities are often built into processes; they become team roles that are assumed at specific points in time. Of course, some employees excel in these team roles. These employees are Connectors.

Let’s explore eight traits of the Connector archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. The Connector will thrive when connecting people and ideas, in order to design solutions to well-defined problems.
  2. The Connector understands methodologies related to design: utilising specialised creativity tools, applying human factors and ergonomics, and focusing on the user experience.
  3. The Connector will seek out the Expert to leverage the Expert’s deep subject matter expertise, though, unlike Experts, Connectors excel in situations where solutions are not already well-defined. Whereas Experts are grounded in reality, Connectors will challenge them to imagine what’s possible.
  4. Connectors favor inquiry over action. They ask powerful questions and are quick to pivot when the Agitator challenges the status quo.
  5. The Connector may frustrate those in execution-oriented roles. The constant flow of ideas and “what would it look like ifs” from Connectors may make it seem as though they’re not concerned with producing tangible output.
  6. By curating the final creative connections, Connectors are often given credit for ideas. They may become the singular face of an idea that is actually the result of a strong team that produced great insight, utilised design processes, leveraged deep expertise, and nurtured an empowering environment.
  7. The best Connectors will partner with the Initiator, who will drive the Connector to produce fully-conceptualised solutions to well-defined problems that will satisfy predefined screening criteria.
  8. Connectors are excited by new technologies and unique insight which can inspire creative solutions. They may spend time researching trends, building valuable networks, and exploring patterns found in other domains in order to make sense of complexity.

Connectors can become the face of innovation in an organisation, particularly when they are elevated to leadership roles. It’s important to note that the Connector’s ideas aren’t worth the Post-It® note they’re written on if there isn’t a highly skilled, well-orchestrated team working to deliver the solutions.

The Connector’s Toolkit

The notion of the lone genius who works behind closed doors to build a prototype that will save the company is a romantic one, but it is far from how solution-generation works. Great solutions are more likely to arise from disciplined collaboration and through unabated inquiry. The best solution designers love the question, “In what way can we fit some pieces together to solve this problem,” rather than assuming that they know a solution a priori.

While the best solutions aren’t known in advance, the steps to arriving at a solution are familiar and knowable. If the Connector were a chef, she wouldn’t follow recipes, but she would taste her food as she develops flavors. It is in this creative process that the Connector thrives. By using lateral thinking and ideation techniques, the Connector can look past what’s obvious to discover what’s possible. In the early stages of design, the Connector will think big and challenge assumptions. As the best solutions begin to take shape, the Connector will apply a different battery of techniques to fine-tune, iterate, and elevate solutions. She knows that both form and function are important.

Common techniques that Connectors use include customer immersion activities, mind-mapping, expert interviews, and brainstorming exercises that reframe beliefs such as SCAMPER. More advanced techniques include future-visioning sessions, future-state customer journey mapping, lean canvas development, business model canvas development, and reimagining solutions based on emerging technology applications. Connectors enjoy getting “outside the building” to find new stimulation and to eliminate distractions, and they may value “finding flow” to focus their thinking. The Connector knows the value of the Expert, who, when asked the right questions, can infuse new thinking into old ideas. The creative tension between grounded Experts and possibility-oriented Connectors can lead to heated discussion … and can produce magical results.

Finally, the best Connectors are acutely aware what their target customers are up against. They are not creative for the sake of being creative. They seek to solve high-intensity, frequently-felt and/or broadly-felt problems. The best Connectors are able to steer a group towards solving the highest priority problems.

Discovering the Connector in You

While it is most certainly true that some innovators are creative visionaries and have a natural tendency to playing the Connector role, it is a skill set that can surface in anyone. One’s ability to connect people and ideas is directly related to the design of the ecosystem in which one operates. Tony Hsieh, the CEO of the American shoe company Zappos, believes that great ideas are just a chance conversation away. He has intentionally designed the space in an around Zappos office buildings to facilitate as many “collisions” as possible. This could look like employees discussing their challenges around a water cooler, or it could look like a chance meeting with an entrepreneur while standing in line for coffee. Connectors will thrive when they feel empowered to ask new questions and to work in new and different ways.

Organisations that are waiting for an a-ha moment – that mythical whale of an idea that is lurking below the surface, unseen, waiting to be discovered – are not playing the right game. These organisations have romanticised the notion of creativity, rather than institutionalising creative processes in an empowering environment. Organisations who have designed their discovery process to mine for keen insight in a customer-centric fashion, who patiently tinker and experiment on new combinations of ideas, and who invite outsiders in to challenge while letting insiders out to explore, know the secret: There likely will be no a-ha moment to creativity. The more you know about customers, problems, and solution sets, the less likely it is that an idea will be at all surprising.

In this respect, the notion that a centralised innovation group would exist to solicit inspired ideas from an employee base is a misguided one. In theory, it seems great that employees would have an outlet for their ideas, but in practice, it is unlikely that a virtual suggestion box for ideas would consistently produce ideas worth implementing. Organisations can become far more innovative if they spend their time building and nurturing a “Culture of Innovation, Collaboration and Trust,” as was my task as CInO. For it is in this environment that employees will play the Connector role themselves.

Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He will profile each of his eight archetypes in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.