Pulse of Innovation: Managing Innovators

June 01, 2021

Every so often we ask our community to sound off on popular topics in innovation and share their best tips, tricks, and advice in hopes that their answers may inspire others in the field. We’ve gathered these insights by email, over phone calls, at events and roundtables, and catching up with clients and colleagues.

One of the biggest challenges that innovation and R&D leaders face is managing talent. Innovators, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs tend to perform best when they have freedom and autonomy to explore ideas and investigate emerging technologies. To an outsider, it may seem like managers just need to get out of the way of innovators in order to extract the most creativity and productivity from the team.

At the same time, Innovation and R&D leaders still need to answer to executives, the board, and other business units. They believe that it should behave like other parts of the business, operating with the same rigor and accountability. Giving innovation teams unfettered freedom runs counter to the logic of sound business management. They’re not entirely wrong, but they’re not exactly right either.

Beyond the optics, innovation’s ultimate success depends on collaboration with the rest of the organization. Innovation rarely, if ever, happens on an island, so even brilliant inventors cannot succeed entirely on their own. It’s not enough to discover a groundbreaking piece of technology. The organization needs something marketable, and sales must learn to sell it. The organization must learn to manufacture new products at scale. Eventually, business executives and/or the CFO will come around to collect.

That said, the quickest way to stifle innovation is to place unnecessary constraints on it. Innovation is a strategic function, requiring more flexibility to fulfill its distinct purpose and role. As with any core function, innovation has its own particular motivations, processes, and success measures.

To effectively manage their teams, innovation leaders must find a balance between tolerating ambiguity and enforcing accountability. They must learn to give innovators just enough space to work while staying close enough to monitor their activities, facilitate progress, and coordinate knowledge and resources.

In this Pulse of Innovation, we’ve asked: how do you manage innovators while allowing flexibility and requiring rigor? Here’s what we learned:

  • Protect Unstructured Time and Space – When an executive calls, someone needs to answer. More often than not, these requests are motivated by the need to maintain and defend the core business through incremental (H1) innovation. But it is a slippery slope, where short-wave needs can cannibalize the time necessary to pursue longer-term (H2 and/or H3) bets. Leaders need to make sure that their team still has room to explore beyond the immediate issues or current roadmap. For many, the first step is to categorize every internal project and inbound request so initiatives can be horizon-mapped against the strategic needs of the organization.

  • Determine the Appropriate Accountability Measures – Traditional innovation metrics are often inadequate for assessing the potential impact of front-end projects. As one recent roundtable attendee put it, short-term logic cannot be used to assess long-term bets. In general, KPIs are not one-size-fits-all and should not be blindly used across the portfolio. Developing an internal / personalized set of indicators for incremental, breakthrough, and disruptive innovation will also make it easier to ensure projects are aligned with overarching organizational goals.

  • Sell the “Why” Over the “What” Mentality – Innovators, for better or worse, are just as prone to being distracted by trending technology, popular startups, and other “shiny objects” as anyone else. It is a manager’s job to help their direct reports understand how the rest of the business thinks, focusing more on the problems to be solved than on miscellaneous opportunities. To reinforce this way of thinking, leaders can request a high-level assessment to evaluate initiatives, ensuring that there is a suitable market, a need to be solved, and an attractive growth rate. Requiring some level of due diligence around projects and initiatives is necessary before getting in too deep.

  • Temper Excitement and Expectations – Encouragement is a major factor in motivation, but it is important to keep emotions in check. Some creative types and visionaries can be too optimistic when setting projections, overestimating the likelihood of success because of their enthusiasm for a technology or project. Rather than asking innovators to justify a pursuit, managers should request a list of reasons to kill it. The project then becomes about building enough evidence to overcome the objections. By framing projects in terms of removing risks, it will make it easier to accept when something is killed, and it will mitigate the threat of poor investment decisions through better planning.

  • Know When to Call in Backup – Innovation cannot specialize in everything. When overseeing a team, it’s important to understand the strengths, knowledge, and experience of each member while still acknowledging their blindspots and limitations. By internalizing the abilities of the collective, it will become easier to delegate work to the appropriate member(s). Similarly, understanding their shortcomings will make it easier to spot when to bring in external expertise and reinforcements. Doing so will maximize the potential output from innovation.

  • Build Incentives Around Indicators and Individuals – Financial rewards and extra compensation aren’t the only way to show appreciation - although bonuses, profit sharing, and stock options can be useful. Leaders can establish other rewards to acknowledge a job well done and they can be tailor-made for each employee. Some innovators want to boost their personal exposure and visibility, so sharing their accomplishments broadly will make them feel appreciated. Other individuals may be interested in growth and professional development; the company can pay for or reimburse them for attending a conference with their peers or pursuing another learning opportunity. Understanding what motivates each employee will help determine the appropriate reward for their success.

  • Track and Share Activity – Innovators cannot have free rein, all the time. Leaders need to know, or at least have some idea, what their direct reports are doing. The easiest way to enforce this practice is to require innovators to record their work in a shared portal or software system. Not only will this help boost team collaboration and improve continuity, but it can be leveraged to earn trust and ensure global accountability. Plus, with more insight into the inner workings of innovation activity, the organization can most effectively coordinate resources and provide support. Innovation teams may find that with more shared data comes a longer leash.

  • Attracting Top Talent – Candidates will always be attracted to “cool” companies. Enlist marketing’s help to create buzz by sharing success stories and wins. Consider emphasizing the bigger-picture challenges and opportunities - whether that’s “curing Alzheimer’s disease” in pharma / biotech or “securing our energy future” at a power company. Of course, competitive pay, career growth opportunities, structured training and onboarding, job security, and a supportive culture remain important considerations too and should be included in job descriptions and postings. With an increasingly competitive job market, organizations need to make themselves - and their open positions - extra attractive.

  • Retaining the Best Innovators – Top performers know they have options and keeping them in the organization can be difficult. In the past, increasing compensation, offering promotions, and providing opportunities for growth and upskilling have kept employees happy. However, many are hoping to hold on to the newfound freedom brought about as a result of the coronavirus crisis. When possible, offer employees the option of “flex work”. Even better, give them the runway to express their talents fully. Many of the best innovators just want to do ground-breaking work, and they will gravitate to whatever arrangement can best get out of the way and allow them to shine.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below. For more tips, check out our growing collection of Pulse of Innovation posts!

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay



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