Can Anyone Innovate? How to Build an Innovator

Can Anyone Innovate? How to Build an InnovatorSince when is everyone an innovator? Not just every company, but every employee?

Yes, I fully realize that there are different flavors and styles of innovation, some more aggressive than the next. And I also realize that “innovation” is a term for whichever process you subscribe to by which you will bring about new outcomes, and can be taught. These factors do mean there is wide opportunity for a variety of people to participate in creating progress through innovation.

But I do not for a moment believe that the best and highest use of every individual is to innovate. For that reason, it pains me to see the occasional client bullishly launch head-long into an innovation initiative with little or no thought to whether they have the right team in place with the wherewithal to carry out the effort. It is as if the attitude is that innovation is something that modern, progressive companies do, “So we must, too.”

When companies don’t take time to build a quality innovative team, it’s not merely projects that fall victim. The real victims are employees and shareholders. Employees, because instead of getting more engaged as they ought, they end up completely disenfranchised and confused by an “innovative” project that probably should have never happened. Shareholders, because by not taking the time to establish right resources – Management 101 – management planned failure in from the start.

As with any project (but I’d argue especially with innovation) before beginning it is absolutely critical to know the key attributes of your core team members so you can 1) play to strengths and 2) add the precise strengths you need to your team. Three core attribute areas to review include Behaviors, Motivators, and Competencies. Each can be precisely measured, and your team’s make-up well defined and tuned. Consider each in terms of what would help vs. hinder your particular effort.

Begin With Behavior In Mind
Of course, Steven Covey said “Begin with the end in mind,” and if you do, the required behavior isn’t far off, is it?

Consider a couple behaviors that might be less than helpful to have in a member of your innovation team. For example, if “adherence to policy” was the major behavioral driver for an individual, it’s easy to see how this individual might tend to get stuck in current policy rather than helping to define a new structure.

What about “competitiveness?” Would including a highly competitive person on your team work? For competitive team-based innovation, clearly. For collaborative environments, though, how would you make best use of that competitive spirit (without ignoring it)?

Here are examples of a few behaviors that are often helpful for innovation organizations:

  • Analyzing Information – Accurately recording and recalling information as required.
  • Versatility – Adaptability to changing assignments, using multiple talents.
  • Frequent interaction – Frequent collaboration and interaction with others, often interrupt driven.

What Motivates You?
It sounds like a job interview question and it’s something good to understand about your innovation team.

For example, what would you do if you knew the greatest motivator of one of your team members was “Attainment of personal power?” Or “Adhere to established principles for living?” For your particular innovation project, are these motivations beneficial, or risks to progress?

By contrast, how interested would you be in knowing that your team members’ strongest motivators were:

  • Being results-oriented; or
  • Generating new ideas.

By taking Motivators into account, we can not only create a project team with the best chance of success, but avoid putting good people in unrewarding situations.

Clearworks - Customers, Connections, Clarity

Name That Competency
Competency models of performance excellence are not new to either HR or Psychology (and can get quite unwieldy if you let them, so let’s not). As with Behaviors and Motivators, my interest is in what happens when you involve someone in a project but don’t use their top competencies, as well as making sure that the correct competencies are present.

Consider the following Competencies:

  • Understanding & Evaluating Others – Understanding the attitudes and feelings of others.
  • Employee Coaching – Developing the professional growth of others.
  • Empathy – Caring about and identifying with others.

It would be hard (for me) to argue that these competencies would detract from any project. Yet a worthwhile question to ask is if you have a true expert focused in any of these areas, how will they best contribute?

Just a few key competencies to seek out might include:

  • Futuristic Thinking
  • Conceptual Thinking
  • Problem Solving Ability
  • Planning & Organizing

What’s The Point?
A client forwarded me an NPR article just the other day that talked about how people who went to preschool made better employees and were more successful (on average) than people who didn’t, and the reason was they had learned soft skills the non-preschool group hadn’t.

People are not all the same and it’s a fallacy – and disrespectful – to treat everyone like they are. It’s a fallacy and a disservice to both employees and shareholders to drag teams optimistically and blindly into innovation projects expecting the best without first stacking employees with the right skills and stacking the project deck with the right people.

Behaviors can be measured. Motivators can be measured. Competencies can be measured. Simply. There is no reason not to discover and treat employees and new recruits as the valuable individuals they are and maximize your chances for success. Your shareholders, your employees, and your future project success will thank you for it.

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Dustin WallingDustin Walling is Principal of Dustin Walling Associates, a Seattle-based management consulting firm providing strategy and operational consulting. For article topics, questions, or comments, Dustin can be reached at

All material Copyright 2007-2008, Wallingford Specialties, Inc. and Dustin Walling Associates, unless otherwise noted. All Rights Reserved.

Dustin Walling




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