Monday, May 07, 2012

Innovators: Humble Servants and Bold Warriors

Thanks to Jorge Barba I'm free of my writer's block that had stymied my writing about innovation.  Jorge noted a post in the HBR blogs by Harry West of Continuum entitled Innovating in the Scary zone.  Harry starts his post talking about the need for humble servants who can understand customer needs, and why the usual picture of innovators is one of hipsters who have excellent insights, cool attitudes and hip eyewear.

I think Harry is on to something.  We tend to immortalize people who create really interesting ideas, but in all truth many skills and attitudes are necessary for innovation to be successful.  In fact you could say that innovators need to be:

  • As insightful as Aesop
  • As humble as a servant
  • As creative as Mozart
  • As tough as nails
  • As bold as Patton
Of course, the people you choose to emulate may be different than mine.

The idea of innovators as humble servants is an interesting one.  But if we stand in our ivory towers and project our knowledge of customer needs without going out to meet customers, our arrogance will defeat us.  We have to be good listeners and willing to hear what customers need, and able to anticipate what they will need that they can't even imagine.

But beyond humility we need creativity.  Simply having good insights and understanding of customer needs isn't enough.  Innovators need to associate disparate concepts and ideas to create interesting new products and services.  There's rarely a straight line from a need or insight to a product or service.

Corporate innovators also have to be tough and bold, to see ideas through to completion.  Humility in gathering insights is one thing, but humility is often not so useful when asking for resources or budgets for an uncertain idea, especially when times are tough.  There are many obstacles and many doubters.  Innovators have to answer or deflect the doubters, and have the courage of their convictions to press on even when others in their own organization doubt them.

The need for all of these characteristics signals why innovation teams are so important.  It is difficult to find one person who emulates all of these characteristics, but a team of people who believe in ideas often will possess a range of skills and perspectives that will encompass all of the characteristics I've defined.  Just as one person on the team tires or discovers a gap in their skills, another team member can step up to offer his or her skills and support.  Perhaps not everyone is humble or a good listener, just as not everyone is good at generating ideas.  Innovation is clearly a team sport - know the skills that are necessary and understand where and when you can offer your skills to help a team succeed.

There was only one Steve Jobs and while we are told to emulate him, we'd probably do better understanding the breadth and depth of roles innovators must hold and understand the conditions and perspectives necessary in every part of the journey.  Rather than attempt to fill all of these roles, find the ones you do best and discover team members who can fill the skill or interest gaps you leave open.

Insight, humility, creativity, development, persistence and boldness.  These are the skills that move an idea to a new product or service.  In the right measure, and at the right moment.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:35 AM


Blogger Braden Kelley said...


In my last two talks I told the audiences that if they walked away with nothing else that I wanted them to walk away with the idea that innovation is a team sport and everyone has a role to play.

For me I believe that there are Nine Innovation Roles that people must play for innovation teams to succeed.

I know that you also Jeffrey had a few innovation roles you highlighted a while back.

Because I believe in The Nine Innovation Roles as a valuable learning and team-building tool, I'm turning them into an interactive card game here - - and will be bringing sample cards with me to the Front End of Innovation conference next week in Orlando to share with people and get feedback before going to press.

Keep up the great work Jeffrey!


5:59 AM  

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