Innovators are skilled value-creators and they accomplish that in some very specific ways. They possess certain cognitive and behavioral attributes that—when combined at a high level—produce staggering concentrations of value. This is obviously true of renowned inventors and entrepreneurs whose ideas have changed the world and often made them quite rich. It is also true of many less well-known inventors, entrepreneurs, product developers, social innovators, scientists, artists and anyone striving to be successful in a dynamic environment.

In recent posts, I’ve been describing some new research that goes beyond the many theories and practices that have become convention wisdom among innovators. This research links specific attributes to actual value creation, and measures their impact. My last post explained why mindset is so crucial to achieving innovation. In this post, I begin to describe the attributes of that mindset in greater detail. So this begins a series-within-a-series on what makes up an Innovator Mindset, based on hard science. My goal is to both explain these attributes and connect them to a larger innovation dynamic.

Today’s attribute is Awareness

Successful innovators have a firm grip on the realities around (and within) them. Awareness of their environment, awareness of their challenges, and self-awareness. This is much more than just “paying attention.” It requires a sophisticated mindset and skill-set and a predisposition to apply it.

A lack of awareness carries a high price. Without it, we fail to understand our customers, colleagues and those we seek to lead. So we lack empathy and insight about the needs and concerns of those around us. We may fail to spot problems until they are so large we cannot avoid them. We fail to see threats and opportunities, or needed course corrections, and we fail to understand ourselves or recognize the impact that we have (both good and bad). Our responses are slower. We have less agility. And we’re vulnerable to having all sorts of blind spots.

Being fully aware, requires a deep and sustained curiosity. Always asking questions, always wondering, always probing to gain deeper understanding. This extends even into areas that we may think we already grasp, where we may have considerable knowledge and experience. There is perhaps no one activity that drives innovation more than relentless questioning.

You build awareness by being willing to challenge your assumptions and expertise, taking nothing for granted. It’s understanding that the surest way to stop learning is to assume you already have all the answers. So everything we think we know is always on the table and available for review and possible revision. This doesn’t mean that you should avoid ever making assumptions. That’s a fool’s errand no can fulfill. We all make countless assumptions all the time or we couldn’t function. What distinguishes great innovators is the willingness to recognize that they’re making assumptions and to identify and challenge them.

Awareness requires a high level of integrity, because awareness isn’t awareness if it’s based on bad information. So innovators strive to avoid corrupting the data. Rationalizing your way to success is almost guaranteed to undermine it.  You need to be sure that your successes are real and that you detect failure as quickly as possible, so you can adjust.

Awareness requires humility, a genuine willingness to recognize our personal shortcomings, the limits of our knowledge and how imperfectly we see and understand the world around us (and ourselves). Our humility reminds us of what we don’t know or may misunderstand, and therefore what needs further investigation. It helps to prompt our curiosity.

One attribute that is rarely described as an aspect of good observation is imagination and yet it is crucial. Very often, what we most need to recognize and understand is not what is happening, but what is not happening. Why are customers not buying the product? Why are revenues dropping? Why is market share going down? Intelligently run businesses make a point of measuring these things partly because they would be difficult to detect if they were not being tracked. In many situations, the challenge is to somehow discern what is not obvious and to do that we need to imagine possibilities that we can then look for. Otherwise we may be entirely unaware of what’s actually happening. Highly effective observation is in many ways just as imaginative as inventing new ideas.

Curiosity, integrity, humility, imagination and a willingness to challenge. These are all admirable attributes, but at first glance, they don’t seem to have any clear connection to each other. Some even seem contradictory. How does imagination help us detect reality? How does humility make us more willing to challenge? But when you see them through the lens of awareness, it becomes clear how they all help to strengthen our grip on reality, and therefore our ability to create value. When you recognize these relationships, it also makes them easier to remember and practice.

These attributes serve to protect us from confirmation bias, the strong tendency we all have to see things as we expect to see them or want to see them, instead of how they really are. A good innovator, like any good investigator, evaluates options and make decisions based on the evidence, not assumptions and prior beliefs. These attributes also help build self-awareness. Just as they help us to better grasp the world around us, they help us recognize ourselves more accurately. This is especially crucial when talking about mindset. If we want to enhance out mindset and gain these many benefits, we need to accurately grasp where we are, so we can make appropriate adjustments.

Empathy is another important benefit. Awareness alone may not be enough to produce genuine empathy. We can of course be aware of someone’s problems and not necessarily care. But awareness is the first step. We cannot hope to have empathy for someone without some awareness of their problems and challenges.

We all face tremendous pressures to fall back into conventional thinking. We have jobs to do and goals to reach and our striving for success frequently undermines our ability to observe impartially. All too often we assume that what we do not notice is not there. We think we know ourselves, yet we all have personal misconceptions and blind spots. We avoid negative feedback because it can be painful; missing opportunities to learn and improve. It takes courage and discipline to overcome these tendencies, but the payoff is the ability to create tremendous value for ourselves and others.

The value of awareness is that by accurately identifying our challenges and problems and context, we can gain insights, find opportunities and invent the kind of solutions that drive innovation. Without awareness, even the most creative ideas are likely to miss the mark. Since it’s not possible to predict when a problem or opportunity may arise, or inspiration may strike, great innovators are “always on.” They have adopted an innovator’s mindset, not as a tool to pick up when needed, but as a sustained way of interacting with the world around them. That is true of awareness and it is true of other Innovator Mindset attributes that I will continue to describe in my next post.