What does it take to become an innovator? It’s a deceptively complicated question, because the short answer is, “to do something innovative.” But there are plenty of great ideas out there from would-be innovators, past and present, who either never got any real recognition or saw their stars fade quickly. That’s because what lies at the heart of being an innovator isn’t just having a disruptive new idea but having the innovation capital to fully realize it and bring it to life.
That’s the main argument behind “Innovation Capital: How to Compete – and Win – Like the World’s Most Innovative Leaders,” the new book by Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr and Curtis Lefrandt, which takes a look at innovators’ most precious but not-so-obvious resource. Not unlike how politicians in Washington, D.C., will wield political capital to build support for passing bills into law, innovators use innovation capital to curry the support – social, financial and reputational – needed for turning their ideas into something real.
But innovation capital isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to anyone with a good idea. Having ideas and building products is one skillset. But being able to build a team, or pool together funding for a project, is something entirely different.
The four pillars of innovation capital
What exactly is innovation capital, though? I recently spoke with Jeff and Nathan on The Emerging World of Work about this, and their findings break it down to four essential parts:
- Human capital: Do your employees or colleagues see you as a forward thinker, creative problem solver and team leader? Are you proactive?
- Social capital: Are you connected to key stakeholders who can bring resources into your project?
- Reputation capital: Do you have a reputation as an innovator already? Do you tend to raise your hand often and get involved?
- Impression amplifiers: How are you getting your story out? How are you drawing attention to your idea?
We tend to assume that innovation comes down to having the best ideas, and that the best ideas win out. But that’s not true. It’s not just about ideas, it’s about building and using your innovation capital to make the most of those ideas.
That’s why Steve Jobs, not Steve Wozniak, is the Apple entrepreneur who became a global icon. That’s why Henry Ford was able to beat out his competitors even if they were building technically better cars than his assembly lines were. That’s why Thomas Edison is famous in a way that Nikola Tesla is not despite having the better inventions.
Wozniak didn’t have the skill Jobs had in building teams and marshalling support for new initiatives. Ford’s competitors didn’t create the ecosystem around their cars the way Ford did with the Model T. Tesla couldn’t commercialize his ideas, or get others to join his team, or attract benefactor support, like Edison did.
Jobs, Ford and Edison all had innovation capital and spent it on creating the support structures that sparked their innovations to life. And at the end of the day, being a successful innovator means not just having a disruptive idea but having the skills, resources and capital to create a system that pushes that disruptive idea into reality.
You can listen to my full conversation with Jeff and Nathan, including what it takes to create innovation capital, why being a founder is key to build up your reputation as an innovator and what it looks like to lose innovation capital, on The Emerging World of Work. “How Great Leaders Win Support for Innovative Ideas” is available to download on your podcast player of choice, including Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.