The Two Types of Innovators in Business

by | Mar 17, 2021

Now that you know which category of innovator you fall under, what is the implication for your organization’s teams? How can you apply this knowledge to the business environment?

Firstly, knowing whether you’re an experimental or conceptual innovator helps answer a question that managers often ask themselves: how does one hone good collaboration inside a team?

We are increasingly becoming aware of the value teams’ diversity brings both in regards to diversity of thought and diversity of people. Diversity is essential in innovation since important innovations often synthesize ideas that were previously considered unrelated. The more unrelated the elements, the more radical the synthesis. Collaboration, and diversity, can provide access to more ideas, because teams can cover more knowledge in a wider range of subjects, than individuals working alone. 

But we also know how easy it can be for different perspectives to cause conflict. 

How do we manage this diversity so that it succeeds? 

 We try to facilitate a balance between similarities and differences so that they work together in the best way. To do so, we need to understand the way we approach innovation. David Galenson, a Professor of Economics at Chicago University, identified two main types of innovators. Our personality test is based on his research. 

While diversity is a good thing, too much of it can cause unhelpful conflict, ultimately breaking down a team. A team, without agreeing on a solution for a conflict, would get nowhere.  In a Huffington Post article, Galenson and his collaborator Clayne Pope found the best way to manage diversity in the work of Michael Nielson and his book Reinventing Discovery. Their conclusion?

A Shared Praxis

A shared praxis is shared knowledge, standards, and techniques that allow collaboration to succeed. But that is only the beginning

Look at the Impressionists and Cubists. They were both groups of painters, but odds are they wouldn’t have been able to work together. A collaboration between the two most likely wouldn’t have worked out. 

Why? They lacked a shared praxis. While the  Impressionists were experimentalists, the Cubists were conceptualists. They had fundamental differences regarding what they thought a painting should be. 

We hope that with this test, innovation managers will learn about their teams’ way of thinking. Because if people on a team have opposing ideas on what the end goal is, they can’t effectively work together. Knowing your team characteristics might contribute to bettering innovation efforts.

Thinking, Innovation

Assembly of Male and Female Scholars Gathered Around an Open Book, | 1515-1527 Marco Dente | Source: The Met

What Does Knowing Our Innovation Type Teach Us? 

Though Galenson’s research focuses on the arts and Nilsen’s on the sciences we can speculate about business as well. And while there is more freedom in art and science to choose your collaborators, we often have preassigned teams in business. However, getting to know your business team might help you to manage and lead the team to success. 


Experimentalists with Experimentalists; Conceptualists with Conceptualists

Using the work of Nilsen and Galenson we can conjecture that it would be best to put experimentalists in a team with other experimentalists and conceptualists with other conceptualists. Each group approaches a final product in different ways. A conceptual innovator knows what their final product is going to look like and can work directly towards that. An experimental innovator is not as direct and looks at the process as a way to learn more instead of only focusing on the final result. 

The type of collaboration in a creative process is important. Conceptualists will find it hard to collaborate with experimentalists because they don’t agree on the approach. For example, Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel the Elder, two conceptual painters, didn’t need to be physically together. They were able to collaborate because they knew what the final product was going to be- they didn’t need to be in the same space to achieve it. They knew how to share their ideas so that others would be able to create what they had in mind.


Type of Projects

In innovation, we might have projects that are short-term and long-term. Experimentalists tend to take the trial and error approach and focus on the long view. Take the world of academia, where many of today’s research papers are co-authored. The authors themselves can be theorists (=conceptual type) or empiricists(=experimental type). Ideally, theorists and empiricists should collaborate because they have the most diverse skills. But often they can’t. Theorists may say, “let’s assume” empiricists will say,” no, no. Let’s find evidence.” So while a theorist would be able to come up with an idea on the spot, an empiricist would want more time to properly do their research. 

In business, it might imply that experimentalists will take more time to run more focus groups, MVPs, tests, or interviews. Conceptualists would like to ship the product asap.



The Parable of the Mote and the Beam | 1619 Domenico Fetti | Source: The Met

Mentoring and Coaching

Experimentalists will seek mentors, conceptualists wouldn’t like to be supervised.

Experimentalists, for example, can collaborate with people from a variety of age groups. Since they are natural experimenters, they seek knowledge and deeper understanding, including from those older than them. In fact, many often seek mentors to learn from as they grow. 

Conceptualists, on the other hand, wouldn’t mesh well with people in other age groups. Instead of seeking deeper knowledge, they aim to only know a little bit about a discipline to stay fresh and free from ideological limitations. Experience can ruin and constrain the conceptual innovator. Entrepreneur Jim McKelvey, an artist and engineer, who invented Square, the mobile payments company,  summarized it best when he said, “There are no experts in the new.” How are they supposed to come up with new innovative ideas if they are constantly looking towards the past? 

Conceptual people are at their best when they know a little bit of a discipline but not too much. But while this makes them great collaborators due to the speed with which they come up with ideas, it makes them less likely to work well with older generations. While the younger conceptual generation wants to continue innovating by throwing out the rulebook, the older generation may not understand their novel ideas. They might even shoot down their ideas, even though they may be great innovations in the long run. 


Team’s Geography

Experimentalists might be better in projects that require a hands-on approach, feedback, and judgment. Conceptualists will be better in projects based on precision.

Experimentalists will find it harder to collaborate over distance because of their precision. They need to be together. What do we mean? What will be easier to teach over the web – mathematics or poetry (assuming we don’t have to speak to the other side)? Most likely the answer is Algebra because one can tell the collaborator across the sea the exact correct answer is and can see if they did it right based on the result. But in poetry, it is harder, it is a matter of judgment – often we need to hear it. 



The Gulf of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque | 1885 Paul Cezanne | Source: The Met

Project vs Projects

Experimentalists often dedicate their lives to one single theme, conceptualists will work over different themes. It is easier for conceptualists to collaborate because it is easier to exchange and negotiate ideas. You can state ideas, share ideas. But for experimentalists, it is harder to share and negotiate vision. Because experimental work often has a longer gestation, there may be less collaboration among experimental innovators than among conceptual innovators.

In a large organization, it might be beneficial to let conceptual types work on different projects with different collaborators, i.e, a bank can assign a conceptual person to work on their large customers, individuals, or investment projects, while experimentalists would like to work only on making individual banking better.



When building teams, experimentalists as well as conceptualists will look for an environment that nurtures their ambitions. They will look for important teachers and important colleagues that can teach them and push them. 

But while experimentalists are interested in the process the conceptualists focus on the product. Rembrandt, who had many students, rarely created with them. Instead, he was more involved in the process than the final product. Picasso and Braque needed each other to share ideas and compete – pushing each other to create more. 

Both groups find collaboration in learning, but in different ways.

In business, we can see the “PayPal Mafia.” A group of former PayPal employees and founders who have since founded and developed additional technology companies such as Tesla, Inc., LinkedIn, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, Affirm, Slide, Kiva, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. Great entrepreneurs wanted to be next to other great entrepreneurs.

And what about a collaboration between companies or independent departments?

Intel makes computer chips and Apple makes computers but they still collaborate even though we can quickly understand that they have a very different DNA. How come? Apple buys chips from Intel. The companies can agree on what the final product should look like, but not how to approach production. Since this is their focus, they can have a successful relationship. However, what would happen if they needed to design the iPhone together? Maybe not so great. 

As Galenson states: intellectual trade is different from trade in goods. In many fields, you need to agree on both the final product and the steps to get there. This is why we must pay attention to creating, and managing, diversity in a way that will benefit the team’s overall thinking process – not just the final product’s outcome.



Kitchen Scene | 1620s Peter Wtewael | Source: The Met

Beyond Art

What does Galenson’s research about innovators and theories about teams teach us? Yes, there is value in diversity: diversity in age and in knowledge. But we must also be aware of how diversity extends beyond demographics and towards diversity in perspectives: in how people work and look at the world around them. 

The shared praxis might not exist between the two types of innovators because there is disagreement over basic values. Such disagreements destroy collaborations because arguments cannot be settled. Arguments can only be resolved if there is general agreement on standards and systems of validation for analyses or procedures. 

Because the conceptualists and experimentalists think so differently and approach problems from opposite directions, it is unlikely that they will share sufficient values to make collaboration effective. This is not to suggest that collaboration can’t be made, it is just to help you realize potential obstacles on the way. 

This is why learning how to manage diversity is a key skill for organizational leadership. It takes the extra step of understanding who is on your team, and how they work best. We must make sure to keep the ideas of these differences in mind and use them to the best of our ability, instead of accidentally causing conflict. 

If you haven’t taken our personality test, make sure to do so, and see which innovator category you fall under!

What can we create together?