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.

Soft Indicators to Kill an Idea

Michael Schrage in his HBR blogpost Three Signs That You Should Kill an Innovative Idea talks about three soft indicators that and Idea or an innovation project is not working for the company. I am happy he mentions serendipity or absence of serendipity as the first sign that things are not working. I would extend his argument and say it is a sign that universe is not really excited about the idea or the innovation and is hence not giving you any signs of accepting your effort. Almost always when things are working there are those serendipitous moments that give you an indication that you are moving in the right direction with some pleasant surprises like being accepted better than you expected, or things getting done faster, better or a quick solution around the corner.

I also like his second clue on no deeper insight. If you are not learning anything new, anything that takes you closer to the cause you are working for, then the idea many not be worth pursuing further. I would extend it to say that even if you pursue it may not give you any long term benefits or any unique advantage in the market place as you are not really getting closer to the real problem. Third clue on touching emotions sound not so logical but makes all the sense because all said and done we all operate from our emotions a lot of times specially when we make decision in our personal lives. Notice that all our decisions as customers of other brands and products are personal for us.

In all too logical world of business we sometimes tend to underplay the role of soft aspects like serendipity, deep insights and emotions but they are as much a part of our DNA as our left brain and contribute as much to commerce as our logical thinking.

Think about it.

Truths about Innovation.

There is no doubt that Innovation today is probably the most mis-used and may be abused world in the business world. We all want to be innovative, but we have no common definition of Innovation, so when we explain our innovation, the first thing that we need to do is explain what do I mean by innovation. Jim Stikeleather in his MIX blog Six Fundamental Truth about Innovation talks about his observations or the truths that he discovered while judging is Innovation Challenge. I must say his inferences are priceless.

I loved what he said about measures: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure – How true. We see a lot of entrepreneurs trying to be a part of the lists of coolest / hottest companies, we see people working towards getting certifications like ISO and other quality standards – all of which become a goal rather than a means to a goal.

In general he says and I add:

  1. Innovation is concrete and not fuzzy
  2. It involves risk – Most organizations have developed their DNA to avoid risk and now when they have to do something against the DNA, it is a challenge
  3. Innovation is a team effort – despite examples always coming from individuals
  4. Innovation is hard to measure and it may be a challenge to live with it given that everything should be measurable in a predictable organization
  5. Innovation is not incremental – Now this actually depends on how you define it and what the organization needs at that point in time and stage of business
  6. Innovation is open – Ideally yes.


Innovation & Recession

Arun Kottolli in his article Innovation & Recession talks about the relationship between Innovation & Recession. He begins by saying this truism:

Innovation, when done right, will help you beat the recession.
Innovation can trigger a recession for the competition

He goes on to explain this with examples from the mobile devices market, how Innovators have sustained, even the ones who depend on ‘imitation’ innovation.

He concludes by saying:

Disruptive Innovation can help companies beat recession.
If you are not a disruptive innovator, be a fast imitator.

Interesting Thoughts.

Factors to look at for Innovation Strategies

Paul Sloane in his latest article ‘What is your Innovation Selection Strategy‘ tells you the criterion you should look at before choosing what is the next innovation that you are going to invest in.

As he says in the end, do not be perturbed by the ticks that you put against each criterion.

To me Innovation is a function of time as well. Your Innovation needs today would be different than yesterday and today, as the organization is a living entity and the environment it exists in is dynamic. In fact lot of times Innovation needs can emanate from these changing environments, to respond to or leverage the new environment.

It is a nice list of criterion to prioritize your innovation list, and also critical thinking that you need to do before you put your time and energy into innovation initiatives.


Innovate or Copy

HBR Blog on When you Can’t Innovate, Copy makes me question the Innovate Vs Copy debate. Innovate would mean innovating ab initio and copy can mean copy as such or adapt an innovation elsewhere to suit your needs. Now these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In different situations you would need different approaches. So the question should be prased as when should you innovate and when should you look for success stories outside your eco-system and adapt them to your system.

More often than not, the so called game changing innovations should be done in house, from scratch and probably be used to change the paradigm in your favor. This kind of a project may even need confidentiality.

Copying or adapting outside innovations can have two drivers. First is environment driven, when you really do not have a choice. If the whole world is changing you have to change to remain competitive. For example a toll free number that works only with a national telecom operator will not work and must be changed to a mobile number given the relative tele-density of the two. This is not a change that you can ignore as the environment has changed, so you must adopt. Second is when you need to change and need ideas for that, or when you have a challenge that does not really seem unique and you want to see what others did to handle it or when you come face to face with an interesting idea and you think it can help you improve your system as well.

In the Ego system, yes, I mean Ego and not Eco, copying may seem down there and innovating the real thing that you can be proud of, but practically speaking, you need to be working on both and you may have more instances of copying than real innovations as there are so many innovations around that can simply be picked up for short to medium term business benefits. Copying or adapting is not always bad.  In fact the whole concept of intersectional innovation is based on picking up ideas from other eco-systems and adapting them to your systems.

Innovation Personalities

Scott Anthony in his HBR Article Making of an Innovation Master talks about people who he thinks are innovation masters.

He chooses P&G’s A G Leafly over Steve Jobs because he thinks Leafly laid down a culture of innovation while Jobs was more of an individual genius. I agree with him. Similarly, he discusses others who he thinks can classify for being the masters of innovation. He also gives a list of potential future masters of innovation. I have not heard of most of these names, see if you have.

If you have to make a list of Masters of Innovation – who would be in them.

My list would have –

Bill Gates ( Yes, he was the first innovator whose innovations created a whole new industry)

Gary Hamel – One of the few guys who I think understands innovation

A G Leafly – for pretty much the same reasons as Scott Anthony

Indian IT Industry – For being an alchemist in creating software engineers for the world. And I could not give this credit to any single person.




Rules of Innovation

Harry West of Continuum in his HBR Blog talks about Three Rules of Innovation. Though I think the format of the post is in line with the HBR format.

The important take away is that to innovate in teams, there must be an open dialogues, a free flowing communication which is never personal or personality impacted, and is always focussed on the creative output required from the job at hand. This is important when you are doing a focussed creative work that is expected to generate some output in a given time and with given resources. When you are debating the idea, it is very important be open and transparent and keep your individual egos away in the interest of the work at hand. 
He talks about separate space or a room for project teams, which I think is not really required in all environments, it is probably required in his kind of work where it is all about being creative in each and every project. Also I believe in being frugal and not spending over the head to be creative. Creativity should come from you internally, you should feel the urge to do something creative and not expect the whole environment to turn upside down to help you be creative. Unless you have an urge from inside to crack a problem, no amount of environment setting is going to help.

Declaration of Innovation

Paul Sloane talks about this Declaration of Innovation in his latest newsletter.

I think this is what all leaders who want their organizations to be innovative need to do. Not just talk about innovation, but make it relevant to every employee’s job. Talk in specifics so that people at every level in the organization can relate to it.  Make it a goal that the organization runs after. Ask for a innovative solutions for known problems, for unexplored opportunities but make it specific so that people understand what is expected of them. It also creates something that can be seen and may be measured.
Commitment is another big difference maker. the moment people sense a commitment from the leader they take the idea seriously, because they feel comfortable that their efforts would be taken care of and not wasted in ‘just another good to seen doing’ initiative. Here again commitment has to be communicate through actions more than the words. And the most important resource that a leader can commit is his own time to the initiative, everything else then will follow with a flow.