Are people born innovators, or can they learn to become that way? An interesting new book, "Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World," by Tony Wagner, a member of Harvard's Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, explores this question in detail. It is a must-read for anyone who is thinking of taking the lonely road toward starting one's own venture.

Wagner covers a lot of ground here. For example: What goes into parenting a future product manager for Apple's iPhone? What do you teach them? How do you motivate them to ask questions and be curious about their world, or "think different"? The future product manager, Kirk Phelps, was interested in soccer, but instead of enrolling him in the neighborhood league, his parents drove him to a blue-collar area where most of the people spoke Spanish. "I didn't care if he was on a winning team or even a starter," said his dad when Wagner interviewed him. "I just wanted him to develop his interest in sports and to experience other kinds of people." However, when Dad wanted Kirk to watch soccer on Spanish-language TV, Kirk balked. What is obvious from the interview is how much his parents considered unstructured playtime an essential part of their children's activities and as a way to build self-confidence.

Phelps goes on to say about his time at Apple: "The only reason I could do my job as a product manager at Apple was that I could talk to the optical engineers, the mechanical engineers, and the electrical engineers, and the firmware guys; the industrial designers, the packaging engineers. I couldn't do any of these guys' jobs, but I knew enough about what they did to have an intelligent conversation and to represent their interests when things were inevitably in conflict." When you think about that, it is pretty amazing.

Wagner worked with a video producer to record his interviews and publish them online. Speaking of which, here is a promotional video about the book:

Every student starts school with unbounded imagination, curiosity and creativity - until he or she learns that knowing the right answer is far more important than asking a thoughtful question. So it isn't so much about "think different," as Apple says, but acting differently and understanding where the reactions take you. This is something that I understood during my undergraduate years, when I was able to structure my own education with what turned out to be an entire year's worth of independent-study classes. I would write up a lesson plan, find a faculty sponsor and do the research. It was something that shaped my education and made me realize that I have a lot of interests. It made my college years invaluable for me.

So what are the characteristics of a good innovator? Wagner proposes four main qualities:

  • Curiosity, the habit of asking good questions and a desire to understand things more deeply
  • Collaboration, which begins with listening to and learning from others who have distinct perspectives and expertise
  • Associative or integrative thinking
  • A bias toward action and experimentation

This is just the tip of the mountain of gems and bon mots that can be found in the book, including a wonderful concluding letter to a young entrepreneur that is a must-read. Unlike many business books that quickly run out of gas after the first 30 pages, Wagner starts off slowly but packs his pages with terrific advice, including this remark from one Olin College engineering student who said, "I don't think about failure - I think about iterating." You can buy the book today from Amazon here.