Why I Wish There Were No “I” in “Innovate”

Why I Wish There Were No “I” in “Innovate”Humans love to compete for status. That said, each community has its own scorecard. In Washington, it’s how close you are to the President. On Wall Street, it’s the size of your bonus. In academia, it’s the number of times your papers are cited in other papers.

We have our own distinct way of keeping track in the innovation community. It’s all about how close you are to the beginning of the story. How many times have you heard a brag line that includes something like “I was there right at the start!” or “I was employee number three!”

What this means, of course, is that if the idea was yours, then you are king.

We love idea people. We celebrate inventors and their inventions. Heck, Edison and his light bulb are the ubiquitous icons of innovation. (Indeed, I’ve long since lost track of the number of innovation books with a light bulb on the cover.)

But, if you give it just a bit of thought, you might agree that this is a questionable scorecard — maybe even a downright peculiar one. It’s sort of like analyzing a football team and giving all of the credit to the placekicker. After all, they literally kick off the game.

Now, in many endeavors, getting off to a good start is crucial. Innovation is clearly one of them, and breakthrough ideas are hard to come by. But in my view, the value of the idea has been blown completely out of proportion. Ideas are only beginnings. And getting from big idea to big impact is extremely difficult — especially in established organizations.

Unfortunately, because we imagine that innovation success is mostly dependent on brilliant individuals with brilliant ideas, we fundamentally misunderstand what it takes to execute.

Put simply: It takes a team.

But it’s more than that. What’s needed is not just “teamwork” in the general, feel good sense of the word. Executing an innovation initiative requires the creation of a very special kind of team — a cohesive assembly of individuals who each take on very specific roles. Only a very well-designed team can simultaneously handle two very different — and often conflicting —challenges: sustaining what exists and building something new.

Unfortunately, companies, in general, aren’t familiar with what these teams look like. Like a newcomer to the baseball playing world, they have little idea, if any, about the roles on the team. They have no idea what the pitcher, catcher, infielders, and outfielders do.

Here’s a specific challenge for you. Imagine you are running a decades-old heavy manufacturing company that supplies large capital equipment to other manufacturers. This year’s strategy calls for building a new business — a software package that will help customers run their businesses more efficiently.

Now: Define the team that can build the new business while sustaining excellence in the existing one. Who is on it? Full time? Part time? Lead role? Support role? What are the responsibilities of each player? What should they expect of each other?

I look forward to your responses. I will summarize your thoughts and add my own in a future blog. I’ll also do so during the launch event for my new parable, How Stella Saved the Farm, on Tuesday March 12 at 1pm. I hope you will register here.

image credit: kenywid.com

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There’s No I in EnnovateChris Trimble is an expert on making innovation happen in large organizations. He is a frequent speaker on the topic — keynote, roundtable discussions, and executive education programs. Chris is on the faculty at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and at The Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science. He has written four books: How Stella Saved the FarmReverse Innovation; The Other Side of Innovation; and 10 Rules for Strategic Innovators – from idea to execution.

Chris Trimble




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No Comments

  1. John Mereness on March 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    As they say “it takes a village.” I very much agree regarding: “innovation initiative requires the creation of a very special kind of team — a cohesive assembly of individuals who each take on very specific roles.” The goal is to get people thinking and talking. I have a knack for developing ideas and it is my goal that they can be accepted, built upon, or just used as an example to show others that their ideas are equally welcome. One interesting observation I have in a recent job search is that many people view me as not safe (I have chosen a path of seeking quality experiences and mentors and it is not the 15 years of doing only A or B). My thoughts were diversity of experience make for more rounded decisions and …. Thus, they are attracted for certain reasons, though fall back on status quo. A large corporation here in town is having Wall Street Journal front page growing pains and they want innovation, though for years their hiring practices have sought very smart though very middle of the road followers (they have trouble developing the path, yet they can certainly lay the yellow brick). Now they preach innovation, yet have not changed their hiring processes – it will be interesting to see if they really reach the results or if it just a “make do effort.”

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