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Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators

The Idea in Brief

Just 5%-10% of your high-potential managers have the skills to become breakthrough innovators. If you don't find and groom these rarities, some other company will mastermind the next big thing.

To identify potential innovators, look for star performers with innovators' distinguishing attributes, advise Cohn, Katzenbach, and Vlak. These qualities include not only the ability to propose new ideas but also an unwillingness to rely on past successes and a knack for selling novel ideas to a diverse array of constituents.

Then give them the experiences and support they need to master the innovation process. For example, take them out of their line positions and replant them in the middle of your organizational chart. Give them access to important specialists (for instance, in operations and marketing) across the company. And pair them with carefully selected mentors who will "test-drive" their arguments for particular ideas and connect them with a wide range of influencers.

The Idea in Practice

Spot Potential Innovators

Look for line managers who can:

  • Zero in on the crucial points buried in the masses of information (such as conflicting customer preferences) circulating through your firm

  • Evaluate new challenges with a clean slate rather than relying on solutions that have been successful in the past

  • Encourage others to share insights that may lead to valuable new products or services

Present these managers with simulations of real-world scenarios from which some key information is omitted. Then notice how well they weed through ambiguity, reach decisions based on the available data, and make the case for their choices. Gradually give them more information, observing whether they can change positions when the evidence warrants.

Let Innovators Prove Their Mettle

Give your future innovators opportunities to demonstrate that they can recognize promising ideas, lead teams of experts to develop them, and sell them to top executives.

Hospitality firm Starwood identified a midlevel product manager as a potential innovator. It assigned him to lead a team to develop new in-room entertainment services in addition to his full-time responsibilities. He had freedom to choose his team from different parts of the organization (negotiating with territorial bosses along the way) and to set the team's ground rules, strategy, and goals. In very short order, he had to develop a marketing plan and then defend it before the executive team. Executives ultimately signed off on the plan, which became a huge success for Starwood.

Provide Mentors and Peer Networks

Pair innovators with different seasoned experts over time. With these mentors, protégés can test new ideas, assumptions, and business cases for potential new offerings before introducing them to others in the company. Mentors can also help fledgling innovators better grasp the underlying agendas of the senior executives who must be won over.

Also plug your innovators into peer networks who meet regularly. These networks provide a sense of solidarity and a fertile environment for exchanging ideas.

Replant Innovators in the Middle

Take your innovators out of their line positions and place them in the middle of the company's organization chart, where no formal boxes exist. There, they become "innovation hubs"--with easy access to influencers across the organization, autonomy, and a big-picture view of how products, ideas, and people can be recombined in new, value-adding ways.

Further Reading


Leading Creative People, 2nd Edition

HBR Article Collection

October 2008

Who most determines your company's success? For many companies, it's the handful of creative people whose inventiveness leads to innovations that may bankroll the organization for years to come. But managing creative people isn't easy. They don't want to be led. They don't care about titles and promotions. They're easily bored. And the process by which they pioneer new insights and ideas is complex and chaotic. How to turn creative people's hot ideas into real business opportunities? This HBR Article Collection provides potent guidelines. For example, know when to impose controls on the creative process (such as during the commercialization phase) and when not to (during early-idea generation). Convince people that they won't be punished or humiliated if they speak up or make mistakes. And ensure that all managers do hands-on work: When employees know their boss has actually done the work they do, they'll feel more comfortable discussing problems and pitching new ideas.

Who's Bringing You Hot Ideas (and How Are You Responding)?

Harvard Business Review

February 2003

by Thomas H. Davenport, Laurence Prusak, and H. James Wilson

There's an unsung hero in your organization. It's the person who's bringing in new ideas from the outside about how to manage better. This is the manager who, for instance, first uttered the phrase "Balanced Scorecard" in your hallways, or "real options," or "intellectual capital." Managerial innovation is an increasingly important source of competitive advantage--especially given the speed with which product innovations are copied--but it doesn't happen automatically. It takes a certain kind of person to welcome new management ideas and usher them into an organization. The authors recently studied 100 such people to find out how they translate new ideas into action in their organizations. In this article, the authors identify the characteristics of these "idea practitioners" and offer strategies for managing them wisely.

Copyright (c) 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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