Six Types of Thinking to Drive Digital Innovation

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Artificial intelligence is doing more and more work for us – recognizing and responding to our speech, recommending what we should watch and telling us where to drive (or soon, driving us).  This has me spending a lot of time pondering the question, what skills are uniquely human – and how do leaders cultivate them to drive the innovation that machines can accelerate?

In an age of automation and machine learning, a leader’s most critical role may well become unleashing the kind of thinking a machine can’t do. That means assembling diverse teams and sparking their uniquely human attribute of creativity. We need people who can think differently, together.  That way of working can be hard, because things tend to run smoother and move faster when you put similar minds together. The dream teams of history – in sports, science or any other endeavor – are made up of people with very different talents that collectively accomplished something a homogenous group of people never could.

Contrast, not consensus, yields true innovation. It’s what produces the magic of breakthrough human insights amplified and extended through technology in order to make a difference in our lives.

Contrasting ways of thinking can take many forms, but here are a few: the six types of profiles I find useful in building a diverse team.  (Sometimes one person can bridge several different dimensions of thinking, so six types doesn’t always mean six people.)

1. The dreamer: These type of people never cease imagining what’s not, what’s next and what’s possible. They think big, stretching the bounds of what is considered achievable. They never stop asking, “what if?” and supply your team with an electric and optimistic creative energy.

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2. The disruptor: The disruptor challenges the status quo and breaks others out of their mental ruts and insular perspective by bringing fresh and far-ranging perspective. My favorite disruptors are intellectually curious, lateral thinkers who are first to spot patterns, latent competitors and untapped opportunities in the market. They are first to identify the intersection of emerging opportunities and business potential.

3. The debater: Debaters question your assumptions, call out your leap of faith logic and point out the flaws in the plan. They see problems long before others, and they keep everyone grounded and prepared. Their questioning nature forces you to strengthen the rigor of your thinking and your plans.

4. The driver: Drivers are natural leaders, bringing a crusading, concentrated vision to all work and supplying forward momentum when everyone else is losing steam or motivation. They are positively relentless in pursuing an idea, galvanizing political support for it and keeping it on track. They can be fantastic advocates for the customer, keeping the team focused on the problem you’re here to solve.

5. The detailer: This type digs into every facet of a project. Detailers focus on practicalities and save everyone else from silly mistakes and fatal design flaws because they think through all the angles and implications. They identify what’s missing in even the best-laid plans and can diagnose the precise point when something could break or be improved.

6. The doer: The doer is the wonderfully resourceful team member who gets stuff done, no matter what. Doers roll up their sleeves and find the solution when the best-laid plan falls apart. They are great colleagues to those who devise the grand strategy because they get it delivered on time, all the time. A great idea is nothing without this person.

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Dreaming, debating, disrupting, driving, detailing and doing aren’t just a range of skills – they are contrasting ways of being human. You  need an effective leader to bring them together and manage the conflict to benefit the whole, creating a sense of collective belonging that both celebrates and transcends the authentic individuals within the team.

In his so-called “lost interview” in 1996, Steve Jobs described a childhood neighbor who had rigged a contraption in his garage. The man collected everyday rocks with Jobs and put them into a homemade tumbler along with some grit. The machine rotated the can of rocks around, making an enormous racket. The neighbor told Jobs to come back the next day. When he did, says Jobs:

“We opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other like this [clapping his hands], creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about. It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

I can’t think of a better metaphor for the merits of a diverse team.  We need the right human intelligence — the messy friction of creative individuals coming together – to make artificial intelligence matter most.

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