Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Finding the best innovators

 I'm writing a series of blogs based on questions that I regularly receive about innovation.  In my last post, I wrote about the staffing plan necessary to sustain growth and innovation, basing it in part on the Pareto rule. That is, 80% or more of your staff should be focused on the "core" business, keeping it humming and generating funds to pay for the other 20%, which should be focused on the next and the new.

This is, of course, just a rule of thumb, and in reality a 20% resource investment in next and new products and services will seem rather large to most corporations.  I think the "new" normal, whenever (or if) we settle into it, will demonstrate that the old rules and investment strategies have passed us by, and the world is moving faster and product cycles are growing shorter in every industry.  Therefore, you'll need to dedicate more of your staff to focusing on the next and the new.  So, in a few years maybe a resource allocation of 90% core and 10% next and new won't look quite so strange.

The previous post was framed in terms of bodies - how many people do I need to be focusing on the next products and the completely new products, services and technologies that are emerging?  This post is going to focus on not just "how many" people you need, but the skills and characteristics those people must have.

Any body won't do

For too long, corporations have believed that "anyone" can innovate, and for the most part that assumption is at least partially true.  Most people are reasonably good at creating small, incremental changes to existing products.  But that's not what gets you to the next and the new.  Again, Pareto raises his head to say less than 20% of your people are even reasonably prepared to do interesting innovation work.

To do the work of identifying market trends, understanding customer needs, finding emerging markets and technologies, and shaping these into projects that become new products and services takes people with rare gifts and insights.  You are going to need to identify these people, and you are going to need more of them in the near future.  Just throwing more bodies (often the wrong bodies) at an innovation project, people who do not have the characteristics and skills necessary, isn't going to work - in fact, it will cause you to lose ground.

What skills are critical to next and new innovation

First, we need to define our terms.  I am talking about Horizon 2 and Horizon 3 (transformative and disruptive innovations), which of course can come in a variety of types - Doblin identifies ten types of innovation.  So we need people who can think about service innovations, process innovations, experience innovations, business model innovations, and so on.  Just focusing on product innovation is too limited.

If the breadth and depth of innovation outcomes have expanded, then new skills and capabilities are required.  Here's a list of some of the characteristics you'll want to identify:

  • Empathy - people who have more empathy understand the customer better and can elicit needs and understand the wants more effectively.  Of course, empathetic people need to be good listeners and able to synthesize a lot of consumer and market data.
  • Synthesizers - there will be a lot of information, most of it qualitative in nature, as part of a next or new innovation projects, so you need people who aren't overwhelmed by data and are comfortable working and merging different types of data to create new insights
  • Trend spotters - New trends are emerging quickly.  Some take root and create change in a market and some fade away.  Spotting trends and understanding their potential implications is an exceptionally valuable skill.
  • Comfortable working in ambiguity - in the front end, especially when we are focusing on next and new innovation, there are rarely any bright lines or clear constraints.  People who need clarity around constraints will flounder in these roles.
  • A sense of discovery - this goes back to the question of being a "know it all" culture or a "learn it all" culture.  You cannot innovation in the next and the new by bringing all of your past experience to bear. You've got to find people who are willing to learn new stuff, discover and explore.
  • Risk takers - Since these folks will be expected to learn new things, try new things, experiment, explore and discover, they have to be people who aren't too concerned with risk taking.  That means either the culture must reduce risks for this work, or you need to find people who are somewhat unconcerned about the risks of doing the work.

Other features or characteristics

Other factors that we've found valuable when looking to build an innovation team include finding people who:

  • Enjoy traveling - people who regularly travel, especially to other countries, are often confronted with different ways of doing things, and have to learn or adapt.  They frequently see new opportunities and are more open to experiences.
  • Are widely connected - the more connections (friends, acquaintances, co-workers) a person has, the more stimulus and the greater their network and potential experiences, which means they are a funnel for more ideas.
  • Have worked somewhere else.  Too often we only trust people who have "grown up" within the company.  People who joined from other businesses, the military or other experiences don't know the history or culture of the business.  And, when doing next and new work, that's a good thing.  We want different perspectives and a bit of conflicting opinion.

Squeaky Wheels

In fact, what you are likely to find is that the best innovators in your company are the squeaky wheels, the folks who are good at their jobs but are always recommending to do something new or different that makes management a bit uncomfortable.  If we can harness these folks and direct that desire and energy to the innovations we want and need, we will be placing those people in their best opportunities and getting the most out of our people.

Being a pirate

The most famous example of this is Jobs' anecdote that it is more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy. The Navy is powerful but hidebound, with rules and regulations that are meant to protect the organization and make slow but steady decisions.  Innovators need to have a bit of slap dash about them, to be something of a pirate, to sometimes ignore the rules.  This need leads back to the idea that people need to be risk takers, comfortable working in ambiguous spaces or markets, exploring and discovering, breaking old rules and making new ones.

Finding the right pirates

You may think that this all sounds good but is difficult or impossible to do.  How would you find the right pirates in your organization?  Strange as it may seem, there is a good deal of research available to demonstrate that 1) these characteristics matter and 2) you can identify these people.

I looked at this years ago and found plenty of scientific and psychological research that demonstrates that curiosity, creativity, risk taking, empathy and other characteristics have been studied for exactly this reason.  There are academic books (see The Innovator's DNA by Clayton Christensen) and research papers that support much of what I am writing about.  OVO built a survey to help evaluate which employees demonstrated more of these characteristics and skills and the companies we worked with found the survey valuable.

If you want to find the right pirates (people more likely to succeed at innovation) consider a number of the aspects I've defined above.  If you re interested in learning more about our experiences or our ability to help you find these people based on assessments, contact me via the email on the blog site.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:38 AM


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