Courses/Ingenuity 601/Innolution

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Innolution Group Project

We would like to understand what makes an innovator ....

Our current project plan is to investigate the psychology of innovators using an interview methodology.

Our three main components for developing our methodology are as follows:

  1. Defining some key research questions
  2. Refining the key research questions into a set of modular hypotheses we can test via a survey methodology
  3. Outlining a survey methodology that can be used to test each of the hypotheses.

A description of the three main components of this plan are included below in the sections below.

Research Questions

Our background assumption is that expertise is necessary but insufficient to define an innovator. Therefore, in a group of experts, we should be able to find distinguishing criteria that separate successful innovators from their non-innovative counterparts in a field (i.e., innovators are seen as a subset of experts, with additional attributes). To do so, we have to look at a 'prospective innovator' in a context that allows us to distinguish between the skills and thought processes required for expertise, and any additional skills and thought processes that may be necessary for successful innovation.

Innovation does not happen in a bubble. There are many different people needed in any innovative process. An innovation requires a tight collaboration of inventors, managers, entrepreneurs, marketers, engineers, and many others. Thus to focus our study we will look specifically at individuals who are experts in their respective areas (e.g. researchers, engineers, inventors) and are involved in the early stages of innovation (e.g. making discoveries, convincing managers, coordinating development). We refer to these particular individuals as "prospective innovators".

From these individuals we would like to understand:

  1. What is their approach to collaboration and working with others?
  2. What aspects of their work are interdisciplinary or require interdisciplinary collaboration?
  3. What thought processes, or mental tools, are needed to think about problems in an innovative way?
  4. How do these responses vary from other experts in the field who are not actively involved in the innovation process?
  5. What is their background like (upbringing, education, early work life)?
  6. How do they interact with and within institutional bodies? Have these institutions been inhibiting or promoting innovation?
  7. ...Other questions?


From this criteria we have established a set of modular hypotheses about what we would expect to see from our interview study:

  1. Group Dynamics -- Collaboration: Innovators are skilled at working in groups. Since innovation is a collaborative process, we would expect innovators to be able to work effectively with people from a very broad audience. Innovators need to be skilled leaders, promoters, and communicators. They need to convince other people with extremely different backgrounds (i.e. management) of the value of their ideas.
  2. Background/Experience -- Interdisciplinarity: We would expect them to all have very broad backgrounds, i.e. they would be knowledgeable about the many different processes and functions within an organization and would have skills in a number of areas and be able to integrate these strengths in a cohesive manner.
  3. Thought Processes -- Different Toolbox: Innovators are adept at thinking about problems from a different perspective, i.e., out of the box, pioneering. They would reside in a community of mentors and peers with very different backgrounds. They would also have training in thought processes not shared by their non-innovative peers (e.g. a music background).
  4. ... Other hypotheses?

In contrast to the above "3 Dimensions" of innovation (Group Dynamics, Background/Experience, Thought Processes), we would expect other experts in the field to be much more narrow in their experiences. That is, they would be very skilled at their work but less capable at working within a team and not as effective at communicating their ideas, they would not have as much integrated knowledge and skill that combines their area of expertise with other areas, but they may still be able to think about problems from a different perspective.

Ideally, our hypotheses should be both modular and orthogonal. In this context, Group Dynamics examines the social realm, Background/Experience examines the role of personal history, and Thought Processes examines the cognitive role. There is a move across the three hypotheses from the 'social sphere' to the personal sphere, or what Michael Polanyi used to call "Personal Knowledge".


Our approach is to use an interview to answer the questions stated above. We would interview both successful innovators and their non-innovative expert counterparts within different fields (essentially a paired test). Rather than perform a quantitative analysis using Likert scales (e.g. from 1-7 strongly disagree to strongly agree) our approach will be to ask open-ended questions, record the responses and analyze the responses with respect to the key questions mentioned earlier. Our approach would be to interview everyone as an 'expert' to avoid any bias towards calling someone an innovator. After the analysis, we would evaluate if the person was an innovator based on the criteria mentioned above. Having a face-to-face interview would also enable other observations, such as demeanor and body language.

Qualifying Criteria

We need to establish qualifying criteria by which we determine our study population of experts and define a subset of those experts to be innovators. We need to do this in a way that avoids circularity and that allows us to test our hypotheses. For example, if 'innovators' were defined as those whose answers agreed with our initial three hypotheses, then our argument would be circular.

Let us assume we can determine an initial group of Experts through an iterative process, e.g., find a well-known expert in a field, and ask him/her who else he/she would consider to be an expert, and then ask the people selected this way the same question.

Having determined an initial group of experts (in one to several fields), and assuming the experts in a field have a high likelihood of knowing each other, ask each expert who they consider the most innovative in their field (excluding themselves). The tally of expert opinions then defines a subpopulation of 'innovators' chosen by other experts in their field.


Backround 1: Demographics

We would like to understand a little bit more about the demographics of those we consider to be innovators. Some aspects include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Age
  2. Gender
  3. Education
  4. Location of work
  5. Size of company
  6. Position within the company
    1. And if they detail, how they arrived at this position in the company
  7. Previous employment history (may include companies, dates, titles, duties, accomplishments/experience)
  8. Work environment
    1. What is the corporate/work culture with respect to innovation?
    2. What is the corporate/work culture with respect to collaboration?
    3. What is the corporate/work culture with respect to multidisciplinarity?
  9. ... Others?

Backgound 2: Influences/Interests

  1. What has influenced you to become who you are and what you do today, e.g., upbringing, schooling, work experiences, role models, etc.?
  2. Did you have any trouble deciding on your career path? Were there a lot of twists and turns or was it a relatively straight path? Explain.
  3. What types of "extra-curricular" activities were/are you involved in?

Group Dynamics

  1. Could you please describe one to several examples of innovations that you have been involved in?
    1. Describing the innovation process would provide some insight into the types of collaborations the expert is involved in.
  2. How do you communicate with people outside your department or field of specialization?
  3. Do you go outside of your working group to accomplish your work? Do you actively seek collaboration? If so, please explain.
  4. What is your approach to leadership? [Should these be asked: How do you motivate others and get them to buy in to your ideas? Do you actively seek feedback and ideas from others?]
  5. ...others?

Thought Processes

  1. Could you describe how you come up with an innovative idea?
  2. Have you ever solved a problem using a unique approach? If so, please explain.
  3. What role, if any, does visualization play in your process of solving problems in your field?
  4. What role, if any, does 'reasoning from facts' play in your process of solving problems in your field?
  5. How role, if any, does intuition play in your process of solving problems in your field?
  6. How do you motivate yourself to keep trying?
  7. ...others?

Some Additional Questions in this section have been moved to /SampleSurveyQuestions


After the interview process, we would expect to have a number of notes, audio recordings, and written commentary on the responses to the interview questions. We would analyze this data using the approaches as outlined below.

Open Coding This approach involves creating transcripts of all the audio recordings, reviewing them, and marking down codes or categories of responses. Each time a new response is observed, a new code is added. The codes can then be counted and used for quantitative analysis at a later time.

Comparison Based on our criteria of splitting up the experts we considered innovators and those who were not, we can compare the responses of these individuals to get a better sense of the psychology of the innovator. The goal of the comparison is not to evaluate people, but rather to see if there are commonalities in the behaviours and demographics of innovators.

Ordination This is an approach that can be used to further process the results of an open-coding approach to essentially look at the similarities and differences of individuals in terms of the language they used. Often this approach is used to see if individuals 'cluster' into certain characteristic profiles.

Stratification This approach is often used to create more uniform subgroups for comparison. Our demographic information can be used as filters in a stratification process.

Sample Survey Questions

While we have specified some 'high level' questions above (a few for each topic), we have also attempted to devise more specific questions that could be incorporated into a sample survey.

These questions are found here: /SampleSurveyQuestions


These are a number of difficulties that may challenge the implementation of this study, such as the following:

  1. Finding enough suitable participants
    1. Diverse backgrounds: It may be difficult to compare individuals as they have extremely different backgrounds, thus the differences that we observe may be individual rather than truly characteristic of an innovator per se.
    2. Given the challenges in finding suitable and willing participants, there could be gaps in being able to correlate demographic data to responses, i.e., not many participants in each stratum. For example, women are typically underrepresented in certain technical disciplines, so some of their responses may relate to the challenges they face as women in that discipline. Also, if we were given a large enough sample of women and of men, we may see differences in the types of vocabulary that the two genders use, and this difference may not be apparent without enough test subjects.
    3. Finding participants: It may be a challenge to find individuals who we believe are innovative. To establish who is an innovator, we may have to ask their peers and their opinions could risk confounding the experiment. Furthermore, we may end up offending our non-innovators. Also, we have to establish how many subjects and disciplines we want to include in our study.
  2. Demographic information
    1. Some difficulties may arise in obtaining certain demographic information such as age or information that allows one to date a test subject. Gender is typically easy to find out without asking, but there is the possibility of transgendered individuals.
    2. Since this survey (as it stands now) would be conducted in English, fluency in English may pose a problem for those whose first language is not English. This would change their responses from what they otherwise would be (relevant to open-coding). We may consider limiting our interviewees to only those who are very fluent in English.
  3. Questions
    1. There could be some overlap in the hypotheses (not completely modular), e.g., it may be more natural that someone who sees the value of interdisciplinarity enjoys collaboration more than others.
    2. Asking questions in an unbiased way, i.e., do we want to use words like "innovative"?
    3. When a test subject asks for clarification, how do we clarify without possibly biasing our question and their answers? We may have some standard clarifying phrases for certain questions, but still need an overall guiding principle.
  4. Timing
    1. A more subtle challenge could be the timing. If we cannot interview all our subjects during relatively the same time period, issues pertaining to the fiscal/calendar year could get in the way. For example, certain times in the year could be typically more stressful across the board while others more relaxed. If we interview them at different times, we may catch some when circumstances bring about a more natural tendency to be moody or unfocussed, etc., due to stresses brought on by reporting or hiring, etc. Even after trying to standardize the timing, there is going to be some variation in how an expert would answer from day to day, based on the nature of interviewing human subjects.
    2. We may encounter challenges in finding experts who have enough time to do the whole survey. Especially because the survey uses open-ended questions, we don't know exactly how long the survey will take, but we will aim for about an hour. We may also find that we want a more extensive survey than what we have right now, but to consider the time constraints of our participants, we would have to pick and choose questions to ask (what to leave in our official survey), we may not be able to go through the entire survey at once (and would either have to postpone the rest of the survey or not get the rest done at all if the participant is unable/unwilling to reschedule soon), we may have to rush the survey or parts of it, or we would have to limit our survey to participants who have agreed upfront to do the survey in two (or more) sessions. However, doing the survey in multiple sessions can disrupt the flow of the conversation and their train of thought.
  5. Other
    1. Consent and debriefing: We would ask for participants' consent regarding a study on the influences, social dynamics, and thought processes of experts in their respective fields, without mention of innovation. However, should they be debriefed as to our actual purpose, methodology, and analysis? If so, when? Right after the interview, after collection of responses of all participants, or after analysis and write-up?

Background Topics

  • /Multidisciplinarity -- Innovations transcend individual disciplines and innovators tend to wander across disciplinary boundaries. Interdisciplinarity involves integration of knowledge between different disciplines that can be clustered together (e.g., disciplines within sciences). Transdisciplinarity involves disciplines that are generally not clustered together (e.g,, physical sciences and social sciences). In this study, we will primarily focus on interdisciplinarity. (First person in these notes refer to Matt.)
  • /Influences -- Innovators are influenced by a sense of differentness -- different mentors, different tools, different markets, and tacit knowledge that highlights these differences.
  • /Innovation -- This is a collection of notes on innovation from a few sources.
  • /Innovative Companies Some examples of innovative companies (anonymized) including their process of innovation.

Other Considerations

Mini Autobiography (posted by Vicki) Give a brief description of who you are, what you do, what is your area of expertise, what are your other strengths, and what your other interests are. (This would help us to see what are their strengths and interests beyond their field of expertise. Should we ask specifically about weaknesses? This may be partially captured in other interests.)

Personality posted by Vicki: see my comments in the discussion section.