Nurturing the (Potential/Jaded/Allstar) Innovators in Your Company

I adore a good scent. Give me hand creams, candles, soaps, lotions smelling of sandalwood or citrus and I am hooked. Therefore, you can imagine my excitement when buying a new plug-in for my guest bathroom. The excitement lessened when I realized that the safety cover protecting the outlet from moisture prevented me from plugging it in properly. Too lazy to go downstairs and rummage in the toolbox for the right screwdriver, I took the discarded cap from when I opened the plug-in and shoved it on top to hold the safety protector up so the scent could flow freely. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it until my guests happened upon it and they were enthralled, to say the least. “That’s such a great idea!”, they exclaimed over my contraption, “We have one too and couldn’t figure out how to keep it up!”

I found their reaction rather peculiar. Was it really that creative or innovative?

Judging by the looks on their faces, this actually was a very BIG deal. Certainly to them, where it was plain that they had been grappling with this issue for some time. And there I went and solved it in less than two seconds. What they wanted to know was – what made me think of it? The fact is, having been involved in innovation consulting for almost two decades, modes of thinking like this have become second nature, without my brain announcing what it’s doing. Nonetheless, I took the opportunity to share with them the Closed World Principle, which could explain the rationale behind my MacGyver-like solution. (I’m happy to explain more about this to those who are interested, but as this is not the topic of this article, we’ll be moving on now.)

Minds were blown. And I have to say I found their enthusiasm refreshing. Where so many people view innovation as a buzzword, standing before me were highly intellectual professionals who just went through an eye-opening experience and wanted to learn more.

What would you estimate is the percentage of these wide-eyed, eager to learn-and-apply people in an organization? High or low? I recently came across an article in the HBR that stated that although innovation is still one of the top agendas for companies, and innovation skills are ranked high in employee reviews, most employees hate innovation to the point of eye-rolling (or worse). But, given the fact that there are about 70,000 books on innovation, as well as other gripping statistics regarding the amount of websites and methodologies, we can conclude that there are still people like me and you (presumably because you’re reading this) that find innovation fascinating, exciting and constantly evolving.

So we see that in every organization we have three types of people: The Untouched, The Uninspired, and the Unfaltering. Here’s a breakdown of each group, what characterizes them, and what they need to be successful:

  • The Untouched – These are people that have somehow fallen through the cracks. Whether because they are new to the organization, their roles don’t directly align with the company’s innovation goals, or their direct manager doesn’t engage them. If innovation is part of your company agenda, these people are part of your target audience. Perhaps they are not directly developing a new product, but you still want them to learn skills to solve their own “plug-in problem” with efficiency. They need skills. An enthusiastic thinker can offer a fresh perspective even if the topic doesn’t pertain to them per se.
  • The Uninspired – These are people who are already involved in innovation processes to some degree. They may have received minor or intense training. However, the spark has gone out, due quite possibly to the overuse and generalization of the term innovation (I’ll try not to count how many times I’ve written it myself in these paragraphs). Or perhaps due to many initiatives not seeing the light of day. And of course, there’s the risk aspect – with already full plates, why would anyone want to take a chance on an extra-credit project that might fail? These are all issues that can and should be addressed. We need to reignite the passion. Whether it’s by letting go of the term innovation and breaking it into clearer goals, introducing new methodologies and tools, and most importantly – crafting your organization’s answer to the question of “What’s in it for me?”
  • The Unfaltering – These are your black belts. These are the people that drive innovation processes forward. They understand the potential that is waiting to be uncovered, and they are excited to be a part. They know it works and that it will work, no matter the topic, no matter the challenge. The danger is if these people switch to the “Uninspired” group. What this group needs are resources – time, budget, and people. They need continuous recognition for themselves and their efforts.

How would you estimate the breakdown of these groups in your company? Which group is the largest? The size of each group determines the level of enthusiasm for innovation in a company overall. As time evolves, the numbers can shift. Each group can become larger or smaller. Once you leave the “Untouched” group you never go back, yet it’s possible to travel back and forth between “Uninspired” and “Unfaltering”. Having this division in mind can help you discern the steps you need to take to make innovation bigger than a buzzword.

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