Study these 7 caricatures to overcome innovation incommensurability


Wikipedia defines incommensurable as

[Scientific theories] embedded in starkly contrasting conceptual frameworks whose languages do not overlap sufficiently to permit scientists to directly compare the theories or to cite empirical evidence favoring one theory over the other.

In other words … 2 smart scientists talking past each other because they think differently. Thomas Kuhn argues true scientific breakthroughs are slow to arrive because of incommensurability.

Sound familiar? Incommensurability happens in politics, diplomacy, and corporate innovation – situations with high stakes and uncertainty. Smart people can’t work together because they think about the world differently.

In many respects incommensurability is even more challenging in corporate innovation. Scientists categorize themselves as biologists, physicists or chemists – fields which define their worldview.  We have no such distinctions in innovation. As Eric Ries puts it …

Entrepreneurs are everywhere.

Innovation happens in any role or department: CEO, sales rep, marketing VP, talent recruiter, engineer, designer, or clerk.

Titles and departments don’t matter – what matters is how innovators think.

When you know how someone views the world, you’re on your way to understanding her. We’ve identified 7 ways corporate entrepreneurs think about innovation.

The 7 caricatures of corporate innovation

The Rebel

The Rebel is like the classical Silicon Valley “hustler” startup founder. The Rebel believes change is good and status quo drives her nuts. She joins a new team Monday and by Wednesday she’s complaining about the inefficiencies. By Friday she is driving her co-workers batty and trying to refocus the team on a bigger opportunity. Leadership is both thrilled with her energy and terrified by her ideas.

The Rebel thinks of innovation as change.


The MBA isn’t a startup founder – he’s like the McKinsey consultant who joins an engineering team as a “business” hire. The MBA thinks about innovation as business models and builds organizational structures to implement them. He’s a fan Eric RiesSteve Blank, and Sangeet Paul Choudary. He often works as an operational leader in a business unit.

The MBA thinks of innovation in terms of business models.

The Capitalist

The Capitalist isn’t interested in operations or innovation for its own sake – only the most effective way to generate outsized returns. The Capitalist is like the general partner at a B-round VC fund who likes placing bets. You’ll find The Capitalist working in business development or strategic acquisition teams. She can’t stand strategic planning and prefers hunting for opportunities. You might find her boasting about the “unicorn” she’s discovered.

The Capitalist thinks of innovation in terms of deals, risk and return.

The Artist

The Artist is like the designer-founder who thinks products should be beautiful and emotionally connect with customers. He adores Don Draper and refuses to put his iPhone in a case because it destroys the beauty. The Artist works in product teams as a designer or marketer and drives the engineers crazy by obsessing over the “little” details. He ships late but leadership overlooks it because his talent is irreplaceable.

The Artist thinks of innovation in terms of customer experience.

The Growth Hacker

The Growth Hacker is newest member of corporate innovation. She’s a startup’s first marketing hire – one who accelerates sales with no money. She’s the team member who discovers a hidden API that allows your sales team to target new opportunities. Her coworkers would love her if only she wasn’t so friggin’ cocky. You’ll find The Growth Hacker working on product, marketing, or sales engineering teams.

The Growth Hacker thinks of innovation as an opportunity for accelerating sales.

The Coach

The Coach is the like the startup founder whose success rests on his ability to recruit the best talent. Give him a team of average performers and he’ll be running an A+ team in a year. The Coach doesn’t pretend to have the answers or want the credit. He believes innovation results from giving the best people the opportunity and environment to excel.

The Coach thinks of innovation in terms of team.

The Engineer

The Engineer is like startup founder who gets accepted to Y Combinator because she single-handedly built a great product. You’ll find her on product or engineering teams. She’s the developer who solves problems before management realizes they exist.

The Engineer thinks of innovation in terms of product.

Your co-workers are … all … and none … of them

Of course nobody is exactly like any of these cartoonish caricatures. The world’s greatest innovators have the strengths of many of them.

Steve Jobs was an Artist and a Rebel.

Reid Hoffman is a Rebel and a Capitalist.

Sheryl Sandberg is a Coach and an MBA.

Erik Schmidt is an MBA and an Engineer.

Drew Houston is an Engineer and a Growth Hacker.

Take a moment to think about the most effective innovators in your company. You’ll find they resemble a few of these caricatures. Once you do you’ll understand their worldview and how they think of innovation.

Understand perspectives and you’ll overcome innovation incommensurability

The most effective corporate innovators are those who can get everyone working towards the same goal. It takes understanding how everyone thinks of innovation.

When you understand how your co-workers think about innovation you will become invaluable.

You’ll help the Capitalist understand “we’re late again” because the Artist and Engineer can’t live with imperfection. And you’ll help him see the unique leverage they bring to negotiations.

Fill your innovation gaps through startup partnerships

No doubt you’re already thinking about your company and can identify plenty of MBAs, Capitalists, Coaches. And maybe an Engineer or Artist.

But what about Rebels and Growth Hackers? (The ones who quit don’t count)

You’re not alone. Corporations are not organized to accommodate enough of these skills. And unfortunately, the Engineers, Artists, Rebels and Growth Hackers you need for innovation may not want to work for you.

This is an area where startup partnerships and pilot projects can create true innovation.

Now that you know how to identify motivations of the startup founders you’ll be in a better position to get your organization working with them effectively.


Inspired by Corporate Innovation Leads Nowhere by Arno Laeven and The Innovation Mosaic by Anthony Mills.

Photo: « м Ħ ж »

Carie Davis