Thursday, November 01, 2007

How to manage an innovator

Let's turn the tables a bit shall we? Usually it's the innovators complaining that "management" doesn't really understand innovation and it's importance. Well, here's an interesting question - how does a more traditional executive manage an innovator on her team?

I guess the answer is - that depends. True innovators - people who are totally sold out to new ideas and new concepts - are hard to manage unless they are creating new and interesting things. They can be directed and guided, but the work they want to do will open up the team to a lot of change and risk, and these folks see through make work pretty quickly. So, if you need to manage an innovator, there are probably a few tacks to take:

First, you can decide to put that person's skills and interest to work. This will mean that you need to get comfortable, or at least be willing to bear some risk and some change. It is important to carefully define what you want an innovator to do - incremental or disruptive? Cannibalize existing products and services or create entirely new ones? Product, service or business model innovation? Defining the breadth and scope of the innovation initiative gives the innovator some room but also sets clear boundaries and guidelines - it lets the innovator work but bounds the risks and change to some degree. You'll need to change how the innovator is compensated and motivated, and you'll need to be sure there's some downstream outlet for his or her ideas as new products and services. Believe me, these folks won't be happy just generating ideas.

Another tack you can take is to ignore the innovator and hope he'll go away. Most traditional organizations end up with a misfit who believes in innovation over process excellence, and the best way to manage the risk and change of the innovator is to give them make work and ignore their ideas. They will get the hint and leave fairly quickly, since most innovators are fairly driven folks. Luckily, most true innovators have a fairly positive outlook and won't create a lot of negative havoc along the way.

A third approach is to link your "innovator" - we speak of this person as if he had a disease - with other innovators in the business across functional lines or business units. Creating a network of innovators who can identify trends and connect important dots across the business will create value on an even broader scale, and may bring some new insights and opportunities back into your team or function.

A final approach is to make the innovator the equivalent of the court jester. In ancient times, the jester was the one who questioned the reasoning and thinking of the "wise men" and the king. He could do it because it was his specific role. Some teams and business units keep innovators around to constantly question the product development paths, the new requirements and ideas to ensure the teams aren't being too careful.

Unlike a lot of other employees, innovators don't need a lot of motivation or encouragement, and given opportunity are exceptionally hard-working, creative and insightful. Within the right position and organizational context, you can't find a better team member. Fortunately, most are relatively open to change and very mobile, as they are usually good at making connections within and outside the firm, and are not afraid to move to positions that value their abilities.

You face a challenge when working with an innovator - he or she is more interested in changing the organization and how it works than accepting something they consider second best. If they can't change the team, they'll change teams, or eventually change to another organization. Don't attempt to change or manage an innovator - find the right spot in the organization and turn them loose.

There's another thing to think about if you are managing an innovator - they usually run in packs. It's rare to have only one "innovator" - you probably have several within the team or at least within the company. You may relieve concerns within your team by removing or tightly managing an innovator who is on your team, but believe me there are others within the organization. Perhaps what you need is more corporate direction about the state and importance of innovation and how the management team believes innovators should be motivated, compensated and managed. After all, this isn't an isolated challenge and may be crucial to the survival of your company. Once a firm develops a reputation for "not invented here" thinking, it is exceptionally difficult to shake.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 2:14 PM

5 Comments:

Anonymous James said...

Nailed it.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Oopala said...

Jeffrey:

Nice to see a little humor injected into a serious topic. Sure, it's great to be one of the "special" G(ifted)/T(alented) kids, but what happens when the work-a-day boss doesn't know what to do with unbounded energy and creativity in an office full of humdrum drones? I would guess it's more along the lines of what you said: ignore them and give them busy work in hopes that they will fade away without going postal.

I cross-posted on your piece to http://blog.innovators-network.org The Innovators Network is a non-profit dedicated to bringing technology to startups, small businesses, non-profits, venture capitalists and intellectual property experts. Please visit us and help grow our community!

Best wishes for continued success,

Anthony Kuhn
Innovators Network

3:22 PM  
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