Enriching Innovative Potential

As the story goes, AirBnB co-founder, Chesky famously asked Peter Thiel what his single most important piece of advice was.

Thiel replied, “Don’t fuck up the culture.”


& So Let’s talk About Culture

Creating a culture of honesty and innovation isn’t a simple task. And while it takes a system and cooperation to maintain, there are some very simple ways you can start building it. Innovation often begins from the top, but it’s terribly misleading to believe that the visionary leader is the key to innovation. In reality, it takes a network, an ecosystem of work styles to maintain sustainable innovation. This “visionary leader” isn’t necessarily the idea generator or architect of the ecosystem, but simply, the person who signs off on paperwork to accelerate the project.

Innovation isn’t this grand idea that takes millions of dollars, years of complex experiements, and complete transformation to build. And it’s also not something that you can brush off until “next year.” It’s something that if you don’t pay attention to, you will most definitely fall behind AND it’s something that you can start developing with a little determination, recognition, and guidance.

Perhaps one of the best pieces I’ve read on innovation is a book by Tom Kelley called The Ten Faces of Innovation. For those who aren’t familiar with Tom Kelley, he runs the marketing side of IDEO, one of the world’s most innovative (and inspirational) design companies. In this book, Kelley explores the different types of roles in the workplace that foster innovation and push boundaries. The following post is based on my understanding of Kelley’s observed roles, as well as my experiences with them, followed by some thoughts on how to include these roles in your company.

Before reading further, it is important to understand that these roles are all unique, and spark innovation in their own ways. There are the Learning Roles, the Organizing Roles, and the Building Roles, all of which come together to establish and maintain innovation within the company. From the Hurdlers who know how to navigate bureaucracy to the Set Designers who manipulate space to enhance internal activity, all these roles are crucial to propelling the innovative agenda, and must be properly appreciated and deployed.


The Learning Personas

The learning personas are driven by the thirst for knowledge and expansion, the ones who never fall complacent. They are the forward thinkers and the pushers of new boundaries who prevent your team form being too internally dependent, and also to remind your team that there is still so much potential for growth. These roles force you to question what you think you know by showing you what you didn’t know you didn’t know.

The Anthropologist

Kelley describes these types as “rarely stationary.” Highly intuitive and inquisitive, they venture into new fields to observe & absorb, and return with new insight, ideas, and mindsets. They are highly theoretical and are able to apply abstract concepts to their problem solving approach in all aspects of a project. Anthropologists are the eyes of wisdom, with the gift of seeing what others miss, absorbing and collecting knowledge, finding inspiration in the most unusual of places. They don’t just learn; they understand concepts and reapply them to other scenarios.

The Experimenter

As we can surmise from the name, these types are testers of ideas. They take a raw idea and assess the end result from different persona perspectives for risk and potential. These idea assessors are decisive and collaborative, with an eye for efficiency and effectiveness, allowing them to transform theories into models, ideas into products.

The Cross-Pollinator

Kelley describes Cross-Pollinators as people who draw associations and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts to break new ground. Like the Anthropologist, these personas are highly inquisitive and love to explore. They’re the idea mappers who have an aptitude for idea absorption and pattern recognition, bringing in ideas from the outside world to enlighten and inspire the company. As collectors of inspiration and experiences, their ability to connect dots and open minds are highly impactful.


The Organizing Personas

These personas have an instinctive know-how when it comes to navigating the system and the people within it. These people think in strategies and destinations, with the ability to both move people across mountains AND the mountains themselves. They have a deep understanding of how the process works, and are natural at executing new ideas, direction, and methodologies. The Organizing Personas are strategists at their core, and you better believe that they play to win.

The Hurdler

Yes, the eternal strategist and tireless problem solver who lives to tear down boundaries and leap over barriers. With a determined yet graceful state of mind, they see potential and ask, “why not?” The Hurdler looks risk in the eye and smiles, as he/she is built to leap beyond them.

“Despite doomsday forecasting by shortsighted experts,” Kelley says, “the Hurdler gracefully sidesteps the obstacle…[turning] setbacks into an organization’s greatest successes.” How about that, huh?

The Collaborator

The Collaborator is the one to “dissolve traditional boundaries within organizations.” Their ability to see potential in people makes them natural persuaders and team builders, engaging employees and stakeholders to assume new mindsets and roles under a united vision. The charismatic element of this role creates opportunities for leadership & coaching.

The Director

The Director is the one who stands at the destination holding the flag of Victory. He/she is a visionary, with an acute understanding of the bigger picture, the ins and outs of the organization, and the risks and potential of the company. Directors believe in their people, their cause, and their direction, and empower others to take charge, to be the best they can be.


The Building Personas

You can find the building personas at the heart of the action, and are easily identifiable due to their visibility. They’re the pieces that hold together innovation byleveraging the knowledge and insight from the Learning roles, and connecting it with the direction and energy from the Organizing roles.

The Experience Architect

The Experience Architect’s specialty is in taking something ordinary and creating an unforgettable experience out of it. As they are usually empaths with extraordinary attention for detail, Experience Architects focus on channeling their positive energy and eye for aesthetics to create remarkable individual experiences regardless of whether it is internal or external facing. You can find Experience Architects facilitating new products/services, events, programs, and learning more about people’s experiences every chance they get.

The Set Designer

The Set Designer in an environmental creature, with a talent and passion for manipulating space to foster inspiration. They make it a goal to create an environment that motivates them everyday, and makes the whole workplace place feel right! They continuously adjust the space to reflect the activities within the company, which thereby sets the tone for collaboration and engagement. Don’t underestimate the power of versatility.

The Caregiver

Like the Experience Architect, Caregivers have a strong focus on human interaction and connection. Kelley refers to them as the “foundation of human-powered innovation,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. These personas understand the importance of genuine connection, and the power of strong relationships. Deeply connected with their integrity, caregivers drive both meaningful and sustainable transformations that align individuals with the vision of the company. Regardless of their role within the organization, Caregivers are able to combine ideas from the Learning Personas, direction from the Organizing Personas, and atmosphere from the Building Personas to generate an authentic and impactful message to individuals.

The Storyteller

Storytelling is an integral part of IDEO, so just by the title, we get a glimpse of the magnitude of this role. Storytellers use the magic of stories to captivate their audience’s imagination. These compelling narratives are expressed in so many forms, through so many mediums that the idea spreads like wildfire, sparking inspiration, action, emotion, and movement in all directions. Through creativity, authenticity, and deep connection, storytellers unite teams, strengthen core values and principles, address underlying issues, and generate countless opportunities for growth and collaboration.

What’s Next?

As individuals, it is our job to understand our own potential and capacity to grow. Last month, I wrote a post about understanding your power in the workplace, where I discussed different types of workplace power, and how to channel the power. Similarly, I hope that we can understand these Faces of Innovation, and identify the areas that we offer the most (and least) value. When looking for people to surround ourselves with (even outside of work), this is really helpful to keep in mind.

As leaders — industry leaders, parents, thought leaders, politicians, managers, CEO’s — it is our job to recognize these personas within our teams, and help them discover their power and voice. From there, we must bring everyone in our team into the innovative process, and allow them to build on the knowledge, processes, and atmosphere that already exists.

Also — it’s crucial to apply these during the hiring process as well. It’s natural for hiring managers to focus on core competencies during the hiring and selection process, because focusing on core competitiveness reaps immediate effects. If you’re looking to build a sustainable, innovative organization, however, look beyond the skills that can be learned, and look at the character & potential of the individual. All I’m saying is pay attention to what you pay attention to.

For recruiters and HR Managers, reexamine and reevaluate job descriptions, and consider the types of people your organization is lacking. Make that a key focus on your hire, because there is no use for another idea generator if no one is present to execute the ideas. It is your duty to emphasize the importance of innovation to management, the hiring manager, and to the applicant.

At When Toys Age, we offer both self-assessments, organizational assessments, and other tools that help identify, communicate, and deploy these roles into operational strategy.

We are building a software tool that intricately aligns all our assessments and tools into a simple platform to guide your company through each step of the employee engagement journey, from recruiting and onboarding to continuous feedback and development, diving into goal alignment, innovation capability, management mentality, internal coaching programs, and so much more. For more information or just for fun, feel free to shoot over an email!

Thank you for reading and Happy Tuesday to you all :)


CultureHillary Wen