Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Who are my best innovators?

As we work with a lot of companies, in the US and overseas, we are constantly confronted with one of the most important questions:  who are the best innovators in my firm?  Any organization wants to optimize its resources, and increasingly good people with deep skills and commitments are hard to find.  Placing the right people in the right jobs, and giving them the skills and freedom they need to succeed is paramount.  What every firm wants to do is find their best innovators, place them in conditions that are conducive for innovation, and support them in every way possible.  But first, how do they find their best innovators?  It's not like strong innovators walk around with a large "I" on their chests, ready to suit up for any innovation emergency.  And, to make matters more complex, many good innovators aren't "mainstream" corporate types.  Many innovators in your organization may occupy positions that aren't exciting, or may be people who are interested in change and uncertainty, while the rest of the organization is fixated on efficiency.  In other words, some of your best innovators may be shunted to secondary positions because their insights and feedback seem like complaining about the status quo.


Before we discuss how to find the best innovators, let's deal with a few common misconceptions.  Good innovators aren't necessarily:

  • The "Experts" - too often organizations assign innovation activities to the people who know the issue or problem exceptionally well.  But these individuals often rule out ideas and narrow the scope too quickly based on past experience.  The "curse of knowledge" blinds many experts to opportunities, or the fact that knowledge of the past or expertise today doesn't guarantee success tomorrow.
  • Prominent leaders.  Many good leaders achieved their roles through excellent financial prowess and are good at asking tough questions about profitability and cost.  Frequently these individuals struggle in innovation activities because the ROI is so uncertain, and they reduce the scope and possibilities to conform to their own financial models or expectations.
  • "Idea People".  In any organization there are people who have ideas or who are very creative, but they may not be your best innovators.  Like Michael Keaton's character in Night Shift they may record ideas ("feed the tuna fish mayonnaise") but those ideas may not be valuable or practical or solve customer needs.
Finding the right folks

Who then are the right folks - the best innovators?  Good innovators combine a number of skills and attributes:
  • Deeply curious about how and why things work and how they can be better
  • Experimentive, willing to try things, make small tests
  • Comfortable with risk and ambiguity
  • Eager for change
  • Very empathetic to customer needs and market conditions
  • Not locked into the "way we do things"
  • Can look at problems from a new perspective or a "naive" viewpoint
As you can see from this list, people who exhibit these characteristics are less likely to be prominent leaders and more likely to be solo practitioners or leading small projects because the way they think and act conflicts with a highly efficient "business as usual" operating model.


There are a range of innovation assessments you can use to identify good innovators in your organization.  The first we use is The Innovator's DNA, an excellent book that calls out five characteristics of successful innovation leaders:  associating, questioning, experimenting, observing and networking. 

Next we use assessments like Foursight, which suggests that individuals have specific skills that are applicable at different phases in an innovation activity, from clarifying to ideating to developing and implementing.  This helps place the right people in the right task at the right time.

Next we assess the individual and their tolerance for risk, change and ambiguity.  Good innovators are comfortable with extending scope, doing new things, cannibalizing existing products, entering new markets. They are comfortable with ambiguity - not everything has to be perfectly understood or "black and white".  They are often entrepreneurial, interested in new products or opportunities as opposed to supporting and sustaining the existing processes or products.

Birds of a Feather

While it seems unlikely, identifying and consolidating individuals who share these characteristics often creates a very innovative team, while assembling the best and brightest, the "idea people" and those with deep technological skill - the obvious choices - can lead to frustrated teams and incremental innovation at best.  More than likely you have good innovators, but because they think and act so differently from the rest of the organization which is so focused on efficiency and effectiveness they've been shunted aside or left in high authority but low responsibility positions.  However, with the right leadership they can make a dynamic innovation team, since they share common perspectives, a desire for growth and change and are open to risk.  Your innovation teams may look less like your corporate "all stars" and more like "the Dirty Dozen", but its results you need, not beauty or perfection.

Not a beauty contest

Building a good innovation team isn't a beauty contest.  Good innovation teams will often be populated by people who didn't necessarily fit well into the existing corporate structures, people who aren't focused on efficiency and effectiveness, people open to change and risk and uncertainty.  They may not be your top performers or your "experts" - in fact there are many reasons to leave the experts off the team.  Using the Innovator's DNA, Foursight assessment and other criteria to determine who your best innovators are, and give them the tools, processes and skills to be successful.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:27 AM


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