Monday, June 21, 2010

What if: Leading an innovation team was a reward?

Paul Sloane wrote an article a while back that for some reason just popped into my consciousness.  I guess I have Twitter to thank for that.  Paul's article examines the fact that many organizations place junior executives on innovation efforts.  The thinking often is that more experienced executives are running "important" businesses or products and can't be bothered to run an innovation project.  He highlights a story about IBM and the fact that IBM was constantly "killing" new innovative ideas due to a lack of management and resources.  I won't repeat the entire Sloane article.  You can read it for yourself here.

What I do want to think through with you today, gentle reader, is the great "what if" of innovation.  What if it was a reward to run an innovation project or initiative, rather than a burden or a risk?  What if the executive teams handed out the leadership of innovation projects as the culmination or final step in the maturation of a seasoned executive?  Wouldn't people scramble to identify new products or services they could champion, or struggle to simply lead an innovation project?  Today, when innovation comes up in an executive committee meeting, most managers flinch away, too busy or too occupied with existing projects or business lines to consider running a nascent, risky innovation effort.  The risks are too great and the rewards too small.  So the people who usually run innovation efforts come from one of three camps:  1) junior executives with less credibility, smaller networks and less experience 2) people who dreamed up the idea in the first place (the "true believers") and 3) the executives who don't have "enough" on their plates and who are assigned to the leadership role rather than volunteering for it.  Let's look at reasons why each of these are fateful choices.

First, placing a junior executive on a risky innovation project doubles the chance of failure.  If innovation is important, it needs every chance to succeed.  Junior executives many not have the relationships, organizational pull, access to resources and funding and knowledge of how things get done that will ensure the project is successful.  By assigning a junior executive to the effort, the executive team hedges their bets.  If the project isn't successful, we can hang it on a less experienced executive and didn't "waste" a more senior executive's time.

Placing a "true believer" as the leader of the team has it's pluses and minuses.  Assigning the person who dreamed up the idea as the leader of the effort means the leader has real passion.  That person is likely sold out on the success of the idea.  However, that passion and commitment may mean the individual has tunnel vision about his or her idea.  Like a junior executive, the true believer may not have access to the resources or networks that could make the difference between success and failure.  And, after all, the true believer may not belong to the executive club and other executives may be less than willing to extend assistance.

But I prefer either of the previous leadership examples over simply assigning an executive to lead an innovation effort who is unwilling or uninterested.  Given the pressures that most executives are under, and how people are evaluated and compensated, anything thrust on someone who is already busy will fall to the back burner, or fall right off the table.  Nothing puts the brakes on an innovation project like a dispassionate, uninterested executive who feels the project or initiative was assigned against their interests or judgement.  Yet this is how many innovation projects get kicked off.  Then the executive spends time seeking someone to run the project and minimize problems and mistakes.  Keep the project alive, just don't take any risks and don't screw up.  Probably the worst of all possible innovation worlds.

Why is it that we insist that our best and most connected and experienced people run the most stable and predictable lines of business, where there are few changes, and insist that the best growth and differentiation opportunities are run by people with less management skill, fewer relationships and less capability?  In a world that is constantly changing with new competitors and a rapidly shifting customer base, why do most firms insist on placing their best executives on yesterday's products and services, and under-staffing and under-resourcing the concepts that will drive new revenue in the future?  Don't we have this exactly backwards?  Shouldn't their be a demand by executives to be the one assigned to create the new product or service that will drive the business forward, rather than ducking away from an innovation assignment?  Shouldn't we have our junior executives cut their teeth running a "safe" existing business to gain insights and skills before leading an innovation effort?

Regardless of your thoughts on the previous paragraph, shouldn't we build compensation and reward structures that attract our best people to lead innovation efforts?  Would that mean that leading a smaller, more innovative team and creating a new product is more highly rewarded and compensated than leading a large team and cranking out dependable revenues from existing products?  Which one is really harder to do?
AddThis Social Bookmark Button
posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:20 AM

6 Comments:

Anonymous Payday loans said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:14 AM  
Blogger HeidiHansen said...

Excellent post. Thank you. Do you have a suggestion on how leaders and members of an innovation team might be compensated? How would compensation reflect risk or even failure?

1:02 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Phillips said...

Hello Heidi.

Compensation for an innovation effort is usually one of the last things the team considers, and should be the first. After all, we'll pull people out of their "day jobs" and ask them to innovate, yet at the end of the year we'll evaluate them based on their day job. And we know compensation is tied to evaluations.

What we need to do is first set up a different evaluation mechanism for those on an innovation project, and make that work rewarding and compelling rather than risky and uncertain. We need to have our best people on innovation, not simply the people we can afford.

Once we demonstrate that the innovation effort will be evaluated differently, recognizing the risks and uncertainties in such a project, and we demonstrate that even a project that ends in "failure" doesn't become a career-ender, then we'll see far more volunteers for innovation, rather than people who were assigned against their interest or will.

I'll try to work up a longer piece about compensation and evaluation in the near future. Thanks for your comment.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are reading my mind! I am so glad I stumbled onto your blog! I am currently in a junior position but have been with my place of employ for 13 years and really am the 'senior' lead in the group I am currently working with (for the past 4 years). This a dept that has yet to see it's full potential due to a lack of 'good' management. I will not move on from a project unless all hope is lost, and in this case - it's not, unless management continues to dig their heads in the sand. The department I work in has the responsibility and onus to bring on innovative programs, etc and maintain existing programs, etc. Opportunities abound! And I cannot focus on them because the department is set as a junior position and entry level!! I am constantly training new blood, which means missed opportunities fly out the window and missed targets are inevitable! Question to you..how do you convince the 'powers that be' (of which I do have the attention of) that a structural change is NEEDED NOW! They are so engrossed in the old tried and true methods. I have a small window of opportunity with boat loads of feedback ( and test cases due to my rebel, risk taking methods ) But how do you convince upper management to actually believe and support and initiate what they are preaching, CHANGE and take that risk!

10:08 AM  
Blogger felicity said...

I look forward to another article. It would be nice to have, too.
home treatments for hemorrhoids

8:07 PM  
Blogger better ck said...

Thanks a lot for this time sharing of innovation about WHAT IF: LEADING AN INNOVATION TEAM WAS A REWARD? This is really the best website about innovation i have ever read. stop pre ejaculation

8:07 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home