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.


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!

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.

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.

Deadly Sins of Innovation Leaders

Jeff DeGraff in his MIX article Seven Deadly Sins of Innovation Leaders mentions 7 sins and their redemption for Innovation leaders. Here is the summary of those:

  1. You thin you can see the future – Really can you? So make small but wider bets on new things
  2. Market economics makes you choose big over fast – too risky. Evaluate the pace at which you can move and choose your new bets accordingly.
  3. Mistaking managers for Innovators , instead encourage and support your deviants – New ideas come from people who interact with the world, who can see things differently and who question the status quo – and more often than not they are not supported or encouraged in the organization.
  4. Having more ambition than Capability – Obviously he suggests that you should base your capability on your capacity. This may seem simple, but many organization fail to estimate their physical and intellectual capability to do new things.
  5. Starting at the center and then moving out – Rather start from the fringes and merge the successful experiments to your core – this will ensure that your core is always strong. Meddling with the core may not yield results always – though you will always find examples where it has worked.
  6. Listening to Wrong Customers- Now how do you know which customers are right and you should go to them – A simple tip – Listen to customers that move first – First movers in their space will also force you to move first in servicing them and coming up with new solutions for the industry you serve.
  7. Failing to connect the Dots – This is a BIG sin and it comes very naturally to companies as there key teams work in silos and hardly know about each other’s work. Leaders are also too attached to their own teams and area of work. To be successful in new things you must work across the organization and that means you must free yourself of your attachments, and develop the ability to see bigger things.

I think this is a brilliant synthesis of what goes wrong with Innovation initiatives at organizations. The third one is particularly interesting because most leaders tend to expect innovation results from their operational best performers, forgetting that best operational guys and best innovators have a different DNA.

Innovation is a Belief

Jeffery Phillips in his blog article Innovation is a Belief System takes a look at how Innovation is treated by Executives and Managers and how it’s their beliefs that impact the fate of innovation in the organization. I found this thought very interesting.  He says that most executives have reached the their current positions by cutting costs and improving productivity so they essentially and inherently believe in that. Managers on the other hand work on quarterly targets that are required to be met for everyone’s survival, but in case some managers come up with new ideas, weather or not they will pursue it depends on how they believe executives will receive their ideas.

It is ironical and hilarious that in most organizations though the executives keep talking about the importance of Innovation, but would not be receptive to ideas that come to them or will not show openness to receive new ideas.

I also agree with the blogger that most executives really do not know how to let innovation happen in the organization, and it is this fear sometimes that keeps them away from actually following their own mandate. So at a belied level, executives may not have the belief that innovation can work for organization and this belief would be transmitted to their managers by way of their treatment of new ideas presented to them.

This may be the first thing that organizations may want to tackle when they set out for an innovation journey.  Executives need to first work on their own belief and start the journey only when they have a strong belief that Organization needs Innovation. This belief then needs to be built in the system, so that an environment and eventually a culture of innovation is built, where anyone with idea can feel confident that if idea is worth taking forward it would be taken forward.



Middle management as Bottleneck

Paul Sloane in his article on how to sell your innovative ideas to your boss ends up acknowledging that middle management is a bottleneck in most organizations. They do not let the bottom up ideas go beyond them. One primary reason for this is that they are no burdened with delivering their targets that they can not think of anything beyond them. Another could be that Innovation is not a part of their performance measuring parameters so they have no motivation invest any of their or their team’s energy into initiatives which may or may not succeed. They would rather focus on what they know, what is within their control and succeed rather than put their bets on unknown turfs.
This leads me to a question – For a successful innovation program, are organizations enabling the middle layer enough?