Innovation Q&A: Right people to drive innovation? Role of middle-managers? Break down silos?


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This is an innovation Q&A I did with Imaginatik, a full-service innovation offering a mix of consulting services, program management and enterprise software. It is fairly old, but still relevant : – )

Here we go…

1. Who are the “right people” to drive innovation, and if these people don’t already exist in an organization, how can they be “created?”

It is hard to define the “right” people, but when I give talks about the future of innovation, I explain that the mindset and skills needed by innovators should evolve around a more holistic approach to innovation, better networking skills and a better ability to communicate on messages as well as products and services.

It is also important to remember that you need different people at the different phases of an innovation process. Some work well at the discovery phase, others at the incubation phase and yet others do well on the acceleration phase. Some companies often forget this and keep the same guys in the same functions for too long. Everyone has specific skills and they should be used properly.

2. Reaching out to consumers and supply chains for process improvements is becoming more widely adopted. The risks of this are many, so how do people avoid the pitfalls of opening up outside the safe confines of their organizational walls? Do these walls need to be broken down and rebuilt?

Yes, there are risks of opening up, but can you afford not to open up?

The way companies innovate is changing fast as competitors try out new things in order to gain competitive advantages. These new things focus strongly on external contributions and it seems as if those that do this well improve their innovation output. Just take a look at P&G, the poster boy of open innovation. They started their open innovation activities long before their competitors and they now enjoy better access to external partners which gives them speed and flexibility when it comes to innovation. Can you risk that your competitors – and not you – get such advantages?

3. In an open innovation model, problems arise wherever intellectual property is concerned. How do you suggest companies address IP rights in large-scale collaborative systems?

This is very much a mindset thing. Executives need to believe that the IP issues can be solved even though they are challenging and they need to convince their IP people about this. If you have a defensive approach on this, you are set up to fail.

Once companies have the right attitude, we see that such companies try to make their processes related to confidentiality faster and more flexible. They also try to develop processes that they can scale as they often start out with pilot projects knowing that they need to be able to handle a higher level of activity later on.

4. Your concept of “SMARTfailing,” of learning from your own and others’ failures, is often experienced in a company’s innovation journey. How do leaders know when they’re still learning from mistakes vs. making too many? And can sponsors of large-scale innovation “plan for failure?”

Recently, I had several interesting discussions with corporate innovation leaders on how to learn from failure. The most interesting thing is that most companies do not have processes for this. They might have the willingness to experiment and they might also accept that failure happens, but they do not seem to have an organized process in which they can extract learning from such situations. Most individuals and companies are to some extent naturally wired to learn from their mistakes and failures and thus they will not make the exact same mistakes over and over again.

On the other hand, I think they can significantly improve their innovation processes if they have a more systematized approach, which is something I have begun looking into with the ideas of smartfailing.

In short, I believe this is an important area that we need to look further into and not just in the field of innovation but also beyond.

5. Where do you see the role of middle managers in an innovation program? Are they at the crucial point where top-down management meets bottom-up creativity, or do they serve another role? And what role does top management need to play in open innovation?

That depends what kind of innovation a company is trying to get and how they are set up for this.

Some companies establish arms-lengths unit and charge them to develop breakthrough innovation. Besides a separate setup, this also requires different people than those who excel in a more typical large corporate organization. Here, you do not really need middle-managers as this is more about executing ideas and thus you have a greater need for strong visionary leaders and people who can get things done.

When such a project grows big enough so that it makes sense to merge it into the main organization, you will have conflicts because two different environments clash into each other. The startup-like culture is in many ways different than the large organization culture and hopefully the managers are aware of this and can not only handle this, but also try to bring out the best from both worlds.

There is a lot of discussion on silos and the people – including the manager – who work in such silos. Should you break those silos down in order to create an environment that is better suited for innovation? I do not think so, as long as you have a separate setup for breakthrough innovation and then let the silos – or the traditional organization – handle the more incremental innovation. This is very much about establishing processes and executing those well.

However, a company should always try to get more out of its main organization with regards to innovation, and here middle-managers play a key role. Sometimes training is needed in order for them to better understand innovation in general, and how it should be defined and applied in their organization.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Stefan Lindegaard
Stefan is an author, speaker, facilitator and consultant focusing on open innovation, social media tools and intrapreneurship.


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