Identifying Innovators

Innovation is ultimately driven by Innovators – people who are able to think differently and more importantly act on those thoughts irrespective of the environment. Their DNA is slightly different from others at least when it comes to their attitude. So how do you choose a team of innovators for your next innovation initiative? What traits should you look for in them and is it really possible to pinpoint the traits that make someone an innovator assuming that the environmental factors are same for everyone?

Lisa Bodell in her Stategy+Business article Fourteen Interview Questions to Help You Hire Your Next Innovator talks about 5 traits that you should look for in innovators –

  1. Strategic Imagination
  2. Provocative Inquiry
  3. Creative Problem-Solving
  4. Agility
  5. Resilience

She even goes on to give you sample questions that you can ask people and has a longer list of questions that she can share on request.

I would add the most important ability of innovators is their comfort with ambiguity. The work they would have to do would have no defined boundaries, no defined conditions, and no predictable outcomes. They would have to define their own work, most of which others may not understand and relate to. The second trait that I would look for is perseverance – this is needed to keep going when the success does not show up for a long time, this is needed when people suspect your mission, this is needed everyone says No and you need to still go on.

What do you do with the Ideas?

David Burkus in his HBR Blog ‘Innovation Isn’t an Idea Problem‘ talks about the first and sometimes the only things that companies do to start innovation initiative in the organizations – start an idea management system. I would like to add that they all start by saying ‘All ideas are good’. So they have all kinds of ideas and lots of ideas. If you ask them what will you do with them, do you even have the bandwidth to go evaluate these ideas – they are clueless.

David quotes examples where winning ideas were there in the system, but there was a bias against them in the system that let the ideas be taken forward by the rival companies. I am sure there are million other examples where some bright ideas were lost in the labyrinth of large setups and their red tapes. What you do with ideas is more important that seeking them out.

David talks of a stock market kind of democratic idea evaluation. This is one of the ways in which ideas can be evaluated in the organizations. Different types of organizations may need different types of Idea evaluation and even different types of idea would need a different type of evaluations, but what is universal is that they must be evaluated competently and idea generators must be given a response and if possible feedback.


Fast Innovation

Scott Anthony in his HBR blog Five Ways to Innovate Faster gives five quick clues to large organizations that can help them to innovate faster. In a way, he is pointing out the pitfalls that do not let startup like innovation environment flourish in large organizations. I agree with almost everything they say. he very rightly points out that teams in large organizations end up spending more time in preparing reports for the management than spending time with the customer in the field. The need to justify their work keeps them limited to secondary research or desk-based research that can be far from the real customer. The distance between the solution designers and the real customer will leave its imprint in the solution as well. Large teams lead to complexity of management and reporting while small teams come with flexibility and agility. Having some people with experience in managing the startups is a big plus that you can bring to the team.

Measuring learning is a challenge and author needs to elaborate how to do that, as there are not many objective ways to do so. Similarly, risk reduction can be subjective in a lot of contexts and may be used to their advantage by those who know how to play with the data.

Do try his litmus test to see if your team is spending time on the time things.

Are you ready for opening up?

John Winsor in his HBR article Being Digital Demands You be more Human talks about two examples where companies opened up their borders and invited their fans to participate only to realize that they can not really handle the fan following. While the author has focussed on keeping a human face while interacting online with your fans and potential customers, it gave me thought on Open Innovation.

Open Innovation is a concept where you ask people outside your organization to contribute ideas for your business. One place where this has worked beautifully is Open Source Software, but then it is something that is not really owned by one entity, most of the work done by independent contributors is kind of co-owned by everyone. In the case of established organizations, the IP intended to be generated in the process is to be used by the organization, so there has to be a process to compensate the ideator. That apart, companies need to answer if they can engage with unorganized crowdsourced ideas without offending those who think their idea must be accepted by you while you may think otherwise. So you have enough communication channels enabled by enough checks and balances that ensure the quality of ideas from the pipeline.

Most organizations struggle with establishing a good pipeline of implementable ideas inside the organization where everything is under control, so establishing one from outside is going to be a far bigger challenge. Having said that ideas coming outside will be uninhibited and from direct expectations of customers, so they will have that edge.

Evaluate if you are ready to open your organization boundaries for letting the flood of new ideas in!

Connecting the Dots

Jeff Degraff in his MIX article  Why the Most Innovative Companies Aren’t talks about what inhibits innovation in organizations is the fact that larger the organization, more it is divided into compartments, independent silos with very limited visibility of what is happening elsewhere in the company. In fact, in most organizations people hardly understand the function of other functions, forget about understanding their challenges or the potential collaboration points. This is where a lot of scopes to innovate is lost. When people prefer to work in their smaller teams or circles, they miss the larger picture, the miss the other angles to the problem they are trying to solve and hence bring down their chances to come out with real big innovations. As a company, it is a big challenge to bring together a cross-functional team that can bring the multiple perspectives to the table.

I also love what he says about Innovative companies: What makes innovation companies unique is, well, unique. That is they are highly adapted to their specific situation. I have been trying to tell this for a long time that Innovation is a very personal and unique journey for an organization. While you can take ideas and inspirations from the experiences of others, you must define Innovation means to you at a given point in time and the stage of your business. What and where you need to innovate is a function of where you are standing on your path and where you are going, and the path chosen must be completely yours.

Stealth Innovation

Paddy Miller and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in their HBR article The Case of Stealth Innovation talk about a potential path that innovators can take when they have an idea that they think is worth pursuing. They argue that though going to C-level executives with your idea is your best bet because if you are able to get support from them, you pretty much have everything available to you to go ahead. In the same breath they warn that if your idea is rejected by them, most probably because of the paucity of time or lack of attention, there is very little chance of your idea being accepted again. authors are talking more in the realm of human psychology and sure it plays a major role in decision making though it is usually underplayed in the logical corporate world. They suggest an approach where you do the ground work for your idea in a stealth mode, with a limited team and resources from internal budgets, and once the idea is demonstrable, share it with the people who matter. You probably have a much bigger chance of watching your ideas adopted by the organization. I loved their MTV example.

I only want to add that this can be one of the many approaches to approach innovation. When you follow this approach do not forget to take the political dynamics in your organization, in your senior management circles. If you are using resources without the consent of the people responsible, be prepared for a backfire.  The idea will be successful is no guarantee, do evaluate a scenario where you idea potentially fails, are you willing to face the music if it fails or if your actions are questioned.

I always think that each situation is so unique that you can never have any rights and wrongs. Wherever there are examples of the success of one kind of approach, there may be as many of it failure. Take a balanced approach, following your own intuition.

Disconnect in Innovation

My favorite author Paul Sloane in his article The Innovation Disconnect talks about a very usual situation in an organization that is unable to reap benefits from their innovation programs.

Top management needs and wants Innovation, and hence launches innovation programs. The foot soldiers, the people on the ground dealing with the issues, delivering products and services are brimming with ideas and they want those ideas to be taken forward. There are programs to capture these ideas and convert them into profitable business. Where is the  missing link then?

The disconnect is the conformity that those who are running the program seek, the rules that they want to adhere to like they do in every other project. While they should be the link between top management’s vision / strategy and the energy at the operational level, they run it like regular projects that have well defined objectives and targets.

There is also a disconnect between what the top management says and what they practice. There is a need for them to walk the talk. Employees need to be confident of taking the path they hear you speak. Basically build a culture of trust where an employee should be confident of sharing a risky idea without feeling at risk, or teams should be able to experiment without feeling being penalized. If they do not trust what they hear from you in public forums, they will not be motivated to work on your vision. This is where the core of missing trust lies and this is where the gap in execution of innovation programs.

Excellent Read.

Battle Testing your Innovation

Marla Capozzi in her Mackinsey article Battle-test your Innovation Strategy talks about a key aspect that we tend to miss while working on our innovations – we ignore the competition. This means we are ignoring the fact that competition is also working on something similar, and when we hit the market we may face their product versus our product and may not know how to react.

While it is very difficult to predict what the competition is doing and what their strategy is, but using the war games, you can try and simulate various scenarios that are possible with competition and this would help you in two ways – Fine tune your strategy for potential scenarios and be better prepared when to handle competition when such scenarios materialize. It is also possible that while you comb through various options, you get new insights about your products or how you position your products in the market.

I think it is a good idea to factor in the potential moves by the competition so come out with more robust innovation products and strategies.

Putting Ideas to Action

Julian Birkinshaw in his HBR article Taming Your Company’s Most Elusive Beast talks about a very important gap in Innovation in organizations – putting Ideas generated to action.

I remember an Innovation Champion in an organization very proudly mentioning to me that they are sitting on 7000+ ideas and how brilliantly they have done on that. When I asked him what do you plan to do with these ideas, do you even have the bandwidth to look at those many ideas? He drew a blank, obviously, his job was to generate ideas and not really do anything with them. He had read enough literature on how every idea is a good idea and how getting more and more idea is good. I asked him what happens to the morale of the employee who gives you an idea in the hope that it would be taken forward only to realize that it is lying in some folder on some hard disk. Do you think he or she will make an effort to give you ideas next time you ask for it? I got the most unfortunate answer – I would not be here next time, whoever handles this will manage this.

Julian picks up three basic things that companies need to do to convert ideas into actionable items –

  1. Timeout – A concept made popular by Google and 3M
  2. Loosely defined role – Do not straight jacket to the extent that all flexibility is lost
  3. Tolerance of Failure – In practice, not many companies practice it though some like Tatas have institutionalized this.

I would re-emphasise the loosely defined roles or rather allowing a flexibility in the roles that allows people to look beyond their narrow domains. In fact, this is required even beyond Innovation Goals for areas like customer service where those who handle customers do not know who can handle it or issues like that. What can be challenging in doing this? Would it lead to a bit of chaos and then the organization would need a capability and an attitude to handle that too.

Arguing with Gary Hamel

Gary Hamel: Are you really serious about innovation?


Garmy Hamel is one of the few management thinkers who I admire. In this MIX video he talks about what organizations need to do to be innovative all the time and make innovation a ongoing activity. He is talking about innovating ‘how to innovate’ in organizations.

I am tending to believe that by putting too much focus on training , we are ignoring the innate ability of the human beings to think and innovate. I think most employees in big organizations cease to innovate because they have been trained to do only what they have been trained to and not think beyond, and they have been made to believe concepts like best practices as sacrosanct and established thinkers as demi Gods. All this put together tells them subconsciously not to think and just follow the herd. When they start doing that another thinker comes and says let me train you on thinking new things. It is not only unfair to them but also detrimental to organizations’ long term interests.

Allow sometime for the employees to be themselves, just create an environment where new thoughts are received and channelled and the rest will follow. Respect the thinking powers that nature has bestowed upon all of us.