How innovators trump innovations

By Jean Kruse / Guest Column

“Great business people are more important than great ideas,” wrote Jim Clifton, chairman and CEO of Gallup. Think about that for a moment. Do you agree or disagree?

Clifton is the author of an interesting book titled “The Coming Jobs War,” and co-author of “Entrepreneurial StrengthsFinder,” a tool to measure the talents and strengths of businesspeople. In “The Coming Jobs War,” Clifton asserted that political and business leaders pay far too much attention to innovation and far too little to cultivating talented entrepreneurs. They’ve got it backward, he argued: To create jobs, leaders must understand that great, thriving business people matter far more than big ideas, which are a dime a dozen.

He illustrated his point by telling the story of Wayne Huizenga. When he was a garbage collection manager, Huizenga decided to build his own trash collecting business. That was a bad idea to many, because the world didn’t need another trash collection company. Nevertheless, he started the business, and eventually turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar organization, a Fortune 500 company and a leader in environmental sustainability. You’ve probably heard of it: Waste Management Inc.

Huizenga’s next idea was arguably worse. His big idea was to rent videos through branded outlets, malls and small freestanding buildings. Clifton wrote, “It didn’t sound very good to me – and I did much of the research on it for him.” But that became Huizenga’s second multi-billion company: Blockbuster Inc.

After that, he had one more bad idea: a national chain of used car outlets. He called it AutoNation Inc., and it became his third multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company.

So what explains these staggering successes: the innovation or Huizenga? This is a really important question because whatever idea he chooses seems to become a good idea. That said, the predicting variable of success in Huizenga’s case is “Whatever idea he chooses is a good idea, because he makes its business model work.” It’s not that he is good at picking innovative ideas – although most thought leaders still believe that’s the key.

Clifton’s hunch is that if you took away everything Huizenga has – all his financial resources, his management team, his connections – and put him in a one-bedroom apartment, a Fortune 500 company would likely burst out of the room. Because of his extreme optimism, his unstoppable determination and his incredible energy, Huizenga is able to build hugely successful enterprises, and he doesn’t need breakthrough innovation to do it. It is wiser to study the person than the idea.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Perhaps Huizenga was just a really good innovator. Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” And according to George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”

Innovators, like Huizenga, thrive on change – they find a better way to do something. “The Innovator’s DNA,” written by Jeffrey H. Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen, suggests that there are five ‘discovery skills’ that distinguish the most creative executives: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. They also suggest that innovative entrepreneurs have something called creative intelligence. The authors wrote that “our ability to think creatively comes one-third from genetics; but two-thirds of the innovation skill set comes through learning.”

You can find their descriptions of how to develop one’s own discovery skills at The article provides practical tips for businesses of all sizes.

Very large businesses have the ability to hire employees whose only job is to be innovative, whether that’s coming up with new products or services, or improving on existing ones. If your company wants to explore innovation in depth, I recommend an article titled “Build an Innovation Engine in 90 Days,” which is available at

Many of your employees may have innovative ideas about how your business could improve processes – after all, who better to discover a better method than those people who are doing the job? Business leaders should never stifle an employee’s suggestions, but rather encourage them. Innovations and inventions usually come from someone who is trying to improve something that is already in existence. That’s what Wayne did – he had innovative ideas for new products, and for how to improve already existing products or services.

Being an entrepreneur requires character, risk and innovation. Entrepreneurs frequently change the course of history, because they thrive on change and build a business that respects the ideas of their employees at every level.

To learn more about innovation and business, contact SCORE, a nonprofit organization of more than 12,000 volunteers who provide free, confidential business mentoring and training workshops to small business owners. To make an appointment with a SCORE mentor or to sign up for a free workshop, go to or call (319) 362-6943.

Jean Kruse is a SCORE counselor and SCORE Iowa district president. She operated her own CPA firm for 13 years and in 1988, joined RSM McGladrey, a national firm, where she provided accounting and tax services to small businesses.