Who Are My Best Innovators?

Is it possible to identify the best innovators in an organization? Most companies know who their best performers are and this is true for almost every critical initiative except innovation. A current research initiative from Jeffery Phillips is delving deeper into the possibilities to identify the potential of an individual to be a good innovator based on shared traits. The goal is to develop a simple assessment tool that any corporation can use to identify the most talented potential innovators on its team, or to use to identify and hire new people with innovation capabilities.

After years of experience, evaluations and assessments, most companies know who their best performers are, regardless of geography or function or process. They know who their best salespeople are according to customer satisfaction and achievement of sales quota. They know who their best managers are according to performance goals. For practically any business endeavor, executives can quickly identify the best individual or team to lead the effort. This is true for almost every critical initiative except innovation.

We believe that consistent innovators share common traits that can be quantified and assessed.

While executives routinely rate innovation as a top strategic priority, few organizations can name their best innovators. When it comes to innovation, the most common refrain from executives is: can you help me identify my best innovators?

What this means in practical terms is that three other classes of employee staff not by the most capable innovators, but many innovation teams: the available, the passionate or the top achievers. Significant challenges exist with all three of these choices.

Help Us Generate More Insights!

From our experience, good innovators share a number of consistent traits. With your help, we hope to prove this hypothesis correct, and confirm the existence of specific attitudes, behaviors and traits, and, once we’ve proven the hypothesis, develop a simple assessment tool that any corporation can use to identify the most talented potential innovators on its team, or to use to identify and hire new people with innovation capabilities.

Take the 5 minutes survey!

The findings will be published here on InnovationManagement.se

People who are available often aren’t the “best” performers but can be assigned additional tasks without conflicting with priority tasks or goals. The people who are most passionate about an idea bring energy to the effort but may not have the skills or networks to succeed. Top achievers are often the people most attuned to existing procedures and protocols, and often have little time or bandwidth for another project. While the first step in many corporate projects is to identify and rank the “best” individuals for the roles, where innovation is concerned those rankings don’t exist, so innovation project staffing is often haphazard.

Executives don’t understand what to look for

Experience shows that executives don’t understand the skills and traits necessary for innovation. They are more accustomed to identifying and selecting individuals to lead or participate on routine projects focused on sustaining existing processes or products, rather than creating radical new products or business models. When in doubt, and with little formal guidance, executives staff innovation projects with people they trust to get the job done, or with people who have great passion for innovation. When it is difficult to staff the people with the most skill and knowledge, due to a lack of information, staffing decisions for innovation projects revert to those who are available or willing.

What’s the impact of poor personnel selection?

What’s the impact of placing people on an innovation activity who aren’t prepared, or aren’t comfortable or engaged in the role? Our experience shows that the majority of innovation teams react by:

  • Limiting the scope of their investigation
  • Considering only safe, incremental solutions they believe will be acceptable to management
  • Accelerating the project in order to return to their “regular” work

These conditions lead to poor innovation outcomes, perpetuating the belief that innovation doesn’t provide beneficial outcomes.

In the best of all possible worlds, executives should be able to quickly assess their organizations, identify people who demonstrate strong proclivity and skill for innovation and build innovation teams based on each individual’s capability and capacity for innovation. This isn’t to say that innovation teams don’t require strong project management or people with deep passion, but far too frequently innovation teams are staffed with people who are more attuned to the status quo than to creating change. Identifying the characteristics of true innovators can help an executive ensure an innovation team is staffed for success from the start.

Finding the best innovators

We believe that consistent innovators share common traits that can be quantified and assessed. While some innovation assessments exist, to date few identify the potential of an individual to be a good innovator based on shared traits. Most innovation assessments are based on identifying the best role for an individual within an innovation project (Foursight does this well) rather than an assessment of all individuals to determine who has the traits most similar to other successful innovators. Our consulting team uses Foursight with every client, to ensure a balanced team that possesses the necessary skills in every phase of innovation.

Other assessments, such as the Kirton Adaptive Innovation Inventory (KAI) place people on a continuum, with “adaptive” on one end and “innovative” on the other end. KAI, based on psychological research, can indicate that a person is more likely to be “adaptive” to the world around him, or more likely to reject the existing world and attempt to innovate.

From our experience, good innovators, regardless of the size of the company they work for, their industry, the products or services they develop, share a number of consistent traits.

From our experience, good innovators, regardless of the size of the company they work for, their industry, the products or services they develop, share a number of consistent traits. With your help, we hope to prove this hypothesis correct, and confirm the existence of specific attitudes, behaviors and traits, and, once we’ve proven the hypothesis, develop a simple assessment tool that any corporation can use to identify the most talented potential innovators on its team, or to use to identify and hire new people with innovation capabilities. To test our hypothesis, we’ve created a survey that seeks to identify common attitudes and traits across consistent innovators.

Will you help?

To date close to 100 innovators from across the globe, representing many industries have taken the survey, and the results to date are illuminating. We’d like to have another several hundred people participate to provide enough responses for the data to be meaningful statistically. Your responses will help us validate our hypothesis or call into question key components or traits our hypothesis is built on.

The survey is approximately 30 questions and can be completed in less than 10 minutes. You can complete the survey anonymously, but if you are interested in participating in some follow up questions, you may enter your contact details. Once the survey is complete, we’ll publish our high level findings on InnovationManagement.se, and determine if the data are compelling enough to move on to the creation of an assessment tool.

Your participation in this survey will help us build a database of traits and attitudes that may indicate the characteristics that distinguish potential innovators from their peers more easily and more consistently. This has the added benefit of reducing innovation risk and accelerating more innovation activities, as executives can select the most innovative individuals to participate on critical innovation projects.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:


Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.
Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” “Relentless Innovation” and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities.

Photo: Five smiling employees standing from shutterstock.com

  • Andy Zynga

    Great article, and we agree completely. We actually developed an assessment tool for innovation POTENTIAL about 2 years ago. We did this in conjunction with Caliper, a company that in the past 50 years has carried out more than 2 million assessments for all kinds of jobs. Meanwhile, hundreds of collaborative innovation assessments have been carried out with our tool. We have this for two levels: The innovation leader, and the innovation professional. It is used both for individual, and for team assessments. Works great, excellent client feedback. Andy Zynga

  • Stephen Sweid

    It sounds like you are assuming the traits you are looking for are inborn and cannot be acquired as skills. I believe creative thinking and innovation can be taught to a great degree as the case with other skills. It might be that the IQ level is in the DNA, but if we see innovation as also the transformation of the idea to reality, there are many skills that can be acquired.

    I would guess that one of the traits is some level of IQ (Logic, analysis, problem solving), the other is the artistic (creative, imaginative, music) nature, i.e. dislike of the routine and love of experimenting, the third is perseverance, since innovation is 90% sweat, the fourth is possibly some extra sensitivity and being slightly introverted (Spending hours alone trying things out or walking), the fifth is positive thinking (nothing is impossible, love of life, passion), another is sense of humor (since this relates to strong imagination and picturing an unusual situation) and it would help to have expertise in the domain too. How about that?

  • cadenas_carol

    Thank you, Jeffrey, for your passion to encourage and empower via innovation! I believe there are God-given talents and gifts in our DNA, the environment in which we are raised, a mind trained to solve (again, this pertains to circumstances challenged in life with), and of course, the infinite discovery of our brain capabilities through courses/education/practice. In my case, I stand for resourcefulness, problem solution as a maximizer, and a heart of compassion for betterment! Have a fun, safe, and rewarding weekend and new week filled with Greatness!

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