The first thing you must realize: Genuine innovators are rare. And the larger the company, the rarer they are.
Abbie Griffin, Raymond L. Price, and Bruce A. Vojak, authors of a new book titled Serial Innovators, believe that innovators “represent anywhere from one in 50 members of an R&D and engineering staff at a smaller organization to one in 200 at a larger organization — and perhaps as few as one in 500 at most Fortune 200 companies,” notes Martha E. Mangelsdorf, editorial director of the MIT Sloan Management Review, in her review.
That’s why it is important to properly manage the few you have. Two considerations:
1. When it comes to product development, don’t be a slave to process.
Serial innovators do not work in a linear fashion. “Their approach involves ‘much more overlap, iteration, and feedback’ between stages than is typical of more formal new product development processes,” observes Mangelsdorf. “For example, a serial innovator may go back and forth between aspects of developing the product and creating market acceptance for it, or between understanding the problem and inventing and validating solutions to it.”
2. Give innovators access to organizational resources — including their coworkers.
“The innovations themselves compete with the company’s existing products for resources, and, instead of working with management-assigned teams, serial innovators often prefer to enlist simpatico colleagues as volunteers,” Mangelsdorf continues. “Serial innovators also like doing their own market research; in particular, they want to spend time with customers and ask a lot of ‘why’ questions to understand customers’ needs.”
The authors of Serial Innovators have a catchphrase that tidily sums up their message.
The best managers “let the birds fly,” allowing their innovators free rein in an unstructured environment.
Of course, that leads to another managerial challenge, notes Victor Lipman in Forbes: identifying who the birds actually are.
For advice about that, read the Harvard Business Review article “Two Ways to Hire Effective Innovators,” by Pete Maulik, of innovation consultancy Fahrenheit 212.