How to Spot and Nurture Innovation Talent
Mastering innovation is fast becoming a competitive imperative. As formerly isolated markets collide and competitors from emerging markets hone disruptive approaches, product life cycles are shrinking and competitive advantage is dissipating more rapidly than ever before.
One challenge facing many companies is that decades of focus on cost cutting and operational efficiency have caused corporate innovation muscles to atrophy. Even worse, natural selection has weeded innovative thinkers out of many corporations. Companies that focus on "execution" over "exploration" naturally reward managers who deliver quarterly numbers over those who dream of ideas whose success is years in the future.
Because innovation is an inherently human activity, putting the wrong people on the team can be an innovation killer. Managers who work brilliantly in the core business can struggle to master new growth business. By relying on what has worked before, these managers can systematically dull the edge of potentially transformational projects.
This article provides pointers for executives seeking to identify the hidden innovators within their companies and tips for how to develop the next generation of innovation talent.
Spotting Hidden Innovation Talent
The need to identify hidden innovators often arises when companies seek to staff a project team for an innovation initiative or to find managers to work in an innovation group.
As anyone working in a large organization knows, it's a challenge. Sometimes, companies try to assemble the "best and brightest." Using these employees is tempting; they are close to the issues and hiring managers usually have some previous experience working with them.
But the best and brightest are typically vital cogs of the core engine that powers the company. While there might be good bench strength and significant processes to ensure the core keeps humming, losing a key line manager can cause the core to stumble in a damaging way.
Additionally, the people who are best at running the core business are grounded in work processes and decision-making patterns that may be dysfunctional in the new environment. Their thinking is also likely to remain focused on the core market, even if they are physically or financially separated from the parent organization.
Other times, companies staff new growth initiatives with the "diamonds in the rough." Innovation requires doing things differently, the argument goes, so we're going to get people who think differently. Assembling the land of the misfit toys is unlikely to be the vehicle that drives growth either. These teams can lack the required discipline to move ideas forward. They also can lack the appropriate organizational gravitas to influence internal resources.
There's another way to categorize innovation talent. When pursuing highly innovative ideas, it is best to select team members who have-in University of Southern California Professor Morgan McCall's language-attended "schools of experience" where they wrestled with challenges you can predict the team will encounter.