Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Even Superstars get the blues

I read yesterday Kate Bennett's post on the concept of an Innovation Superstar.  I think many organizations wish they had an innovation superhero, but I think that the superhero is a thin uncertain foundation to build an innovation capability on.

I like a lot about what Kate writes about, and I'm not attempting to pick a fight with her.  If your firm is lucky enough to have an individual who is capable of wearing the mantle of innovation superstar, more power to you.  However, from our experience, it becomes evident fairly quickly to everyone that the role is a terrible slog.

Innovation superstars are necessary in some organizations because there is no agreed method or theme to generate and manage ideas, no process to find funding, no available resources to help convert good ideas into viable products and services.  In effect, the superstar often generates the idea, manages the idea and through sheer force of personality manages to convince enough people that the idea should become a new product or service.  Given that the average time from idea to product in many businesses is measured in years, not days or weeks, this is a tremendous effort swimming upstream the whole way, with little support and no cultural encouragement.

These superheros must have a compelling vision, must be completely sold out on their ideas, must be excellent communicators, able to present new ideas without ruffling feathers or asking people to put existing products or services at risk. They must be able to beg, borrow or steal resources and cadge enough funding to test the idea, and must have enough business savvy to find the right sponsors who will agree to convert an idea from an intangible concept to a commercial product or service.  Given that strong innovators with defined processes and teams of people, supported by innovation software often struggle at doing this work, what strength of purpose and what perseverance must the superhero have in order to do this once?  And, having done it once, could possibly stomach the idea of doing it again?

Now, if you'll tell me that you have someone that matches this description in an organization that is fortunate enough to have cultural support for innovation, sympathetic managers willing to provide resources and a defined workflow, we'll say what are you waiting for?  But without the cultural support, infrastructure, resources and sponsorship, the superhero will be lucky to convert one good idea before finding another role out of sheer exhaustion.

Note that Kate says at the end of her blog "If a Superstar is completely unsupported or leaves an organisation, however, it will not be long before the innovation programme is floundering and the excuses begin."  And you might ask yourself, if an individual has that much capability and passion, why would they remain in a place where their skills and capabilities aren't rewarded and valued?  They'll either leave, to find a firm that acknowledges and supports their capabilities, or take a much more comfortable but boring position in their existing firm.  No one wants to fight corporate bureaucracy on a regular basis, and those that try often end up on the outside looking in.

Strong, committed personalities are important for innovation, whether those personalities are in the executive suite or in innovation roles in the organization.  But those personalities, no matter how strong they are, aren't a match for the inertia, fear of change and avoidance of risk that many organizations present.  If you have a superstar, nurture them, and give them the support and infrastructure they need to thrive.  But if you don't, you can create an innovation process and culture that allows anyone to develop an idea successfully.  Superstars are valuable, but supporting culture, processes and infrastructure are far more valuable.  Often, the presence of Superstars indicates a lack of agreed methods, processes and workflow.  Many within the organization will carefully examine the workload of the Superstar and decide they have better things to do than innovate.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:13 AM


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