By: / /

How can a companies’ ability to innovate be improved?All innovation activity can be traced back to the behavior of employees. That makes the employee the center point of attention, if you want to improve your innovation ability. This article is built around the question: Which personal abilities and traits as well as organizational culture enable an employee to be innovative?

Let’s define an innovative employee

Organizations, who want to create a basis for long-term success, are constantly evolving. They strive for change at the right point in time to secure their economic survival. (Janssen 2000, p. 287) Therefore it is important to know how a companies’ ability to innovate can be improved, there are manifold thoughts on that topic to be found in literature. Innovation in this sense describes a new, technically feasible product or process, which generates an economic value. All innovation activity can be traced back to the behavior of employees. That makes the employee the center point of attention, if you want to improve your innovation ability. Employees can nourish Innovation or could even hinder it. This Exposé is built around the question which personal abilities and traits enable an employee to be innovative. Besides the definition of the ‘innovative employee’, the differentiation of basic and expert knowledge is also included.

Innovative behavior – what a company aims at

Innovative behavior describes all activities that belong to generating, evaluating, realizing and implementing of new ideas. Amongst others these are:

  • The search for and the testing of new technologies,
  • The creation and use of new paths to reach the companies’ goals,
  • The use of new work-methods,
  • Or the acquisition of resources to realize ideas. (Yuan & Woodman 2010, p. 324)

How Crowdsourcing Supports Social EnterpriseHow Crowdsourcing Supports Social Enterprise

Open innovation can be organized into a more inclusive granting mechanism. In the past, nonprofits and other organizations would fund social enterprises by asking for a written proposal—but combining mentorship and crowdsourcing creates new opportunities and community solutions. Find out how it worked for Pact and the US Department of State in the AfrIdea case study.

Learn More

In contrast to creative behavior, innovative behavior also includes the adaptation of others’ existing ideas besides just new ones. (Yuan & Woodman 2010, p. 324) So, how should a person be like, that is able to live innovative behavior? Which traits and abilities are important for that very special task? What basic knowledge should such a person have and what should she know if she wants to be an innovation expert? In the following the traits and abilities, that foster innovative behavior will be discussed, to subsequently derive the definition of an innovative employee. Additionally the necessary basic and expert knowledge will be defined.

“Interviews show that innovative work is a combination of individual motivation and clever teamwork.”

Traits of an innovative employee

Traits describe the character of an employee. They are part of the personality and can only be influenced to a very small extent. In the literature there are a lot of traits that are beneficial for innovative behavior:

  • Visionary view on challenges and solutions
  • Openness to change
  • Persistency
  • Thorough presentation of ideas and solutions
  • Persuasive power
  • Independent search for information, resources and support (Kanter 1982, p. 95ff)
  • Proactivity in the pursuit of ideas and their transformation into an economic value (Miron et al. 2004, p. 178)
  • Honesty and the ability to solve conflicts (Tjosvold 2008, p. 19)
  • Intrinsic interest in the own work and/or problem solving (Yuan & Woodman 2010, p. 323)

Since theory is only half the truth, innovative practitioners were interviewed. This delivered interesting additional traits. They show that innovative work is a combination of individual motivation and clever teamwork.

  • Curiosity
  • Diligence / Aspiration
  • Efficiency and effectiveness, which means the exact knowledge of the goal and an optimal distribution of available resources.
  • Communication skills
    • Transparency towards colleagues
    • Ability to inspire others for a topic

From these traits the definition of an innovative employee can be derived:

The innovative employee distinguishes himself through visionary way of thinking on challenges and shapes his ideas in a committed and self-acting way. In consequence of inquisitiveness and intrinsic interest on positive changes, he recognizes potentials for improvement not only in his own field. He uses the resources available to him in an optimal way, commu-nicates openly over his ideas and manages to inspire colleagues and business partners for them.

“An innovative employee has extraordinary skills to provide or distribute his knowledge to others.”

Abilities of an innovative employee

Abilities, in the context of innovation, describe the knowledge that is used by a person to solve challenges or problems. They are partially specific to a certain topic, since experienced employees can solve challenges connected to their knowledge faster, or easier. On the other hand, a certain distance to a topic can lead to new insights and valuable solutions or ideas. To avoid so-called Lock-Ins,it is essential that an innovative employee has knowledge of different disciplines. The main reason for this is the large potential of transferring known solutions to other disciplines. (Scott & Bruce 1994, p. 587)

According to the results of the interviews an innovative employee also has extraordinary skills to provide or distribute his knowledge to others. Additionally process-management skills and a high affinity and understanding of technologies and products (inside and outside of the company) have been determined as being particularly useful for innovative employees. On top of that the social competences like empathy and the ability to reflect through observation play an important role. The combination of understanding technologies and empathy leads to the knowledge of unmet needs or demands, which might remain hidden for others.

Aside from knowledge the method-competence of an employee belongs to the key abilities. The necessary methods depend on the phase in which the innovation process currently resides (see Table 1). Intuitive methods demand a great deal of creativity; systematic ones solve challenges using predefined structures and patterns. An innovative employee knows when to choose which method. (Scott & Bruce 1994, p. 601) It is important to keep in mind, that creativity is necessary, but not sufficient to generate good ideas. (Miron at al. 2004, p. 178) Systematic methods lead to better results and at the same time consume fewer resources and decrease risks. This is also key part of the methods ”Minimal-Resource Innovation Management” (REMINO), “Minimal-Risk Innovation Management” (RIMINO) and “Requirements Guided Innovation” (RGI). The methods of further phases are part of the expert knowledge because of their high complexity.

Table 1: Methods in the innovation process

Click to enlarge

From the above a definition of basic and expert knowledge of an innovative employee can be derived:

Basic knowledge of the innovative employee embraces systematic and intuitive methods for idea generation. Additionally he has knowledge from various professional and academic disciplines. Experts know furthermore the methods for determination of the search field, for idea evaluation and for realizing their ideas. Their knowledge covers the complete innovation process. Additionally and because of their high technological insight and empathy capability, experts have the extraordinary ability to recognize and analyze needs as well as to pass on their gained knowledge.

“Establish creative room (time and space), to enable the employees to break free from the daily work and support their intrinsic interest to generate Innovations.”

Culture to foster innovative behavior

Employees can only be innovative if this is supported by the companies’ culture. (Miron at al. 2004, p. 181) Let’s have a look on the key factors that can be found in literature:

  • Foster collaboration and communication across organizational structures and hierarchies
  • Free flow of information
  • Independence to pursue ideas
  • Trust in the employees competences
  • Providing resources (time/money)
  • Mechanisms to reward innovative behavior (Miron at al. 2004, p. 179; Kanter 1982, p. 102; Scott, Bruce 1994, p. 601)

Rewarding employees and giving out incentives is a double-edged sword and needs to be handled with extreme care. After all, if you have 100 employees and reward one of them you will have 99, maybe equally innovative ones, that might be demotivated.

The interviews reflected literature quite well. But we considered it worthwhile to include the more practical view on culture since the above-mentioned key factors are quite abstract. The organization should provide:

  • Transparency and documentation of ideas (knowledge- and idea-management systems)
  • Creative room (space and time), which lead to a free mind:
    • Distance from the daily business
    • Absence of pressure
    • Fostering of fun / intrinsic interest to create innovations

The necessary or beneficial culture can be concluded as follows:

The innovative behavior of employees is nourished through a culture that emphasizes collaboration and communication between employees and guarantees freedom for the flow of information. The employees earn trust to realize their ideas independently. Necessary resources are provided in a sufficient amount. Good knowledge and idea management provides documentation and traceability of ideas. Furthermore creative space is created, to enable the employees to break free from the daily work and support their intrinsic interest to generate Innovations.

“A company has good reason to train people and install an innovation-friendly framework.”


The three definitions show clearly that innovation is a complex business. To be really innovative, a person needs many traits, abilities and knowledge. The authors are well aware that the herein given definition describes an ideal person,which will be rarely found in reality.

And that is exactly how these definitions should be used in practice: An ideal to strive for; An ideal to measure your efforts against.

Secondly it shows how important a good recruitment is. Personal traits cannot be trained but they are responsible for at least half of the innovation success. It is just possible to emphasize strengths and make weaknesses unimportant, but you cannot turn a weakness into strength.

Last but not least it shows that the remaining half of factors that contribute to innovation success are factors that can be influenced. A company has good reason to train people and install an innovation-friendly framework. Even with ‘normal’ employees all these efforts make innovation much more likely to appear. As a positive side effect those measures contribute towards a good working climate at the same time.

Altogether these considerations can be used to set up an internal training program for inno-vative employees. The definitions show:

  •  What can and should be trained
  •   Methods and knowledge important for innovation
  •   Who should be trained
  •   Persons who have at least some of the mentioned traits
  •   And if a training would have success at all
  •   An innovation friendly culture should exist


Janssen, O.: Job demands, perceptions of effort-reward fairness and innovative work behavior.
In: Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 73 (2000), Nr. 3, p. 287–302

Kanter, R.M.: The middle manager as innovator.
In: Harvard business review 60 (1982), Nr. 4, S. 95–105

Miron, E.; Erez, M.; Naveh, E.: Do personal characteristics and cultural values that promote innovation, quality, and efficiency compete or complement each other?
In: Journal of Organizational Behavior 25 (2004), Nr. 2, p. 175–199

Scott, S.G.; Bruce, R.A.: Determinants of Innovative Behavior: A Path Model of Individual Innovation in the Workplace.
In: The Academy of Management Journal 37 (1994), Nr. 3, p. 580–607

Tjosvold, D.: The conflict-positive organization: it depends upon us.
In: Journal of Organizational Behavior 29 (2008), Nr. 1, p. 19–28

Yuan, F.; Woodman, R.W.: Innovative Behavior in the Workplace: The Role of Performance and Image Outcome Expectations.
In: Academy of Management Journal 53 (2010), Nr. 2, p. 323–342

About the Authors

Benjamin Thedieck, M.Sc. is Associate Consultant at the Technology and Innovation Consultancy INVENSITY. He is a member of the Center of Excellence Systematic Innovation, where he is working on several topics concerning strategic management of innovations. His focus lies on methodologies for technology foresight and knowledge management.

Dipl. Industrial Eng. Volker Lippitz is Senior Consultant at the Technology and Innovation Consultancy INVENSITY. He is Head of the Center of Excellence Systematic Innovation. He has worked for many international companies on innovation projects for more than 10 years. His focus lies on the efficient and systematic generation of innovations and he is author of several systematic innovation methodologies and articles.

B.Sc. Business Informatics Daniel Pfeifer is Consultant at the Technology and Innovation Consultancy INVENSITY. He is Deputy of the Center of Excellence Systematic Innovation. His focus lies on Innovation Management Systems and the emerging Innovation Management Standard CEN/TS 16555.

Photo: Businessman Works from