Identifying the Innovators in your Firm

Finding InnovatorsThanks to Twitter, much of my research is done for me. I found a story linked on Twitter about the key innovation characteristics of leaders in innovative firms. That article was published by HBR.

The five attributes the authors identified as relevant for innovation are: associating (making connections across unrelated ideas or problems), questioning (especially focused on “what if” or “why not”), observation (especially observing behavior), experimentation (new experiences or exploration) and networking (especially with people from different industries or perspectives). Let’s assume these factors are correct – from my experience they appear to be. Then, let’s compare to what happens in many firms today.

First, there’s little association in most firms today. Most organizations aren’t interested in making connections across disparate fields of study; they are focused on maximizing the best practices within their industry. Rarely do we see ideas introduced from outside an industry unless it is introduced by an outsider.

Second, while there’s plenty of questioning, it is most often used to belittle or denigrate ideas, rather than build them up. The knee jerk reaction in most firms when a new idea is generated is to seek what’s wrong with the idea, rather than to build the idea or support it.

Third, the concept of observing customers or clients has been completely outsourced. Too few people spend time watching and observing customer behavior and trying to understand it. We’ve insulated ourselves from interaction and rely on cold, quantitative surveys. We often don’t understand our customers’ behavior or what that behavior means.

Fourth, there’s limited experimentation outside of an R&D lab. Gary Hamel pointed out in his book The Future of Management that most firms have some product or service experimentation, but never experiment with management practices. More to the point, the authors define experimentation as new experiences or exploration. For the vast majority of firms, management is content to stick to its knitting.

NetworkingFifth, the first line item cut in any downturn is travel and conferences, so we by definition limit the amount of networking that is possible. In fact, in many firms there is little interaction with competitors, and even less interaction with firms in adjacent industries or markets. Innovation often happens at the intersection of two seemingly disparate markets or businesses, yet we’ve managed to wall ourselves off from any interaction with others.

The point here is that most organizations actively work against many of the attributes that would define good innovators.

So, if you are seeking to build an innovation team, or hire people with a greater proclivity for innovation, perhaps you should ask the following questions:

  1. Give us examples from your experience where you combined two concepts or capabilities from diverse situations or markets and created something completely new. Or, here’s a (lego block, lincoln log) and a (band-aid, scarf). Can you create three interesting, useful new concepts from these raw materials?
  2. What’s your first reaction when someone offers up a new idea? If the response is to explore it further or build on it, ask for examples. Otherwise, next question.
  3. How do you gain insight into what consumers want and need as new products and services? 1 point for reading in the industry, 3 points for reading outside the industry, 5 points for putting on the consumer hat and acting as a consumer, 7 points for actually watching and interviewing customers about their behavior
  4. Give an example from your personal or professional life of something new you’ve taken on. Could be learning a new language, learning a musical instrument. Need evidence of the attempt, and persistence. Quitting after a week or so isn’t good enough.
  5. Tell me how frequently you meet with people who aren’t in your industry or have very different experiences or perspectives than you do. Do you intentionally seek out these interactions?

How often do you think your HR team asks these questions? If you’ve built a successful innovation team, did you ask questions like these?

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

Jeffrey Phillips




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