Give Power to the People For Innovation That Works

Editor’s note: Gina Colarelli O’Connor and her research team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been studying how companies manage radical, or breakthrough, innovation since 1995. She believes that companies must recognize that innovation is distinct from other corporate functions, and that innovation beyond the incremental—strategic innovation— requires a hierarchy of roles associated with all of the necessary competencies. Now she’s distilled that research into her latest book, Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation through People, co-written with Andrew C. Corbett and the late Lois S. Peters. The book, published this year, focuses primarily on developing and managing innovation-related talent.

The following post is an excerpt from an article about the book that Dr. O’Connor wrote for the March/April 2018 issue of the CIMS Innovation Management Report.

In February 2016, Larry Fink , the CEO of BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest investment management company, sent a provocative letter to the chief executive officers of the S&P 500 and large European corporations. In that letter, he urged them to figure out how to endow their companies’ future through investing in long-term, value-creating innovation, and to be transparent about it.

Investors and, indeed, economies, need something more than short-term stock price bumps, he claimed, in order to build a strong foundation for society. And if given the compelling vision of companies’ strategic intent, short-term financial deviations will be better tolerated by the investor markets.

The letter has generated many cynical comments and much debate, but to us it represents a clarion call. Somewhat surprisingly, it comes from a leader in the finance community—a community that has often been considered the bane of innovation’s existence. Now it’s up to companies to respond, and to do so they must develop a capability for strategic innovation. It must become part of the fabric of large, established companies.

How To Do It

In our book, we describe a way to do that: Develop a well-articulated strategic intent and a process for updating it every five years or so. Build an innovation function and make it a permanent department alongside accounting, finance, marketing, manufacturing, R&D, and all the rest. Create the right governance system and a somewhat consistent and persistent resource plan. Develop discovery, incubation, and acceleration competencies. Adopt the Learning Plan© and Discovery Driven Planning© as tools for new business creation projects. Operate at the project, platform, and portfolio levels simultaneously. Design a complete, well-integrated management system for it that aligns with the objectives of strategic innovation. Don’t cherry-pick which elements of the management system (see illustration) to focus on or set to the side. Make it cohesive.

A comprehensive management system for strategic innovation. Reprinted with permission from John Wiley & Sons, from Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Richard Leifer, Albert S. Paulson, and Lois S. Peters, Grabbing Lightning: Building a Capability for Breakthrough Innovation

Develop the Right Talent

And, at the root of it all, select and develop the right talent. There will be no sustainable system without recognizing and instituting the innovation roles required for a strategic innovation portfolio.

Company leaders must institute clearly defined innovation roles and develop the selection and evaluation criteria to help individuals become innovation experts. They cannot expect expertise to develop if people are constantly rotated in and out of strategic innovation projects, or expected to work on their breakthroughs in the morning and their other projects in the afternoon. It just does not work. The skills, attitudes, mind-sets, and time frames differ too much.

There needs to be clear recognition of the array of talent required and distinct activities to develop it. To continually seed and grow its next platforms of business, a business needs to develop true innovation professionals, not part-time players.

Intrapreneurs, Mavericks At Your Own Risk

Gina Collarelli O’Connor

Similarly, companies cannot depend on intrapreneurs or mavericks— who operate on the margins of the system and are vulnerable to changes in sponsorship on a moment’s notice—to be the engines of the company’s future growth. And while the 15 percent free time rule sends a nice message about an organization’s cultural support for innovation, it’s an “at your own risk” approach.

Bootlegging resources and championing behavior are great examples of enthusiasm, but wouldn’t it be better if we could use the strengths of an organization to work with these folks, rather than surround them like antibodies trying to attack a virus?

That means that companies must design roles and responsibilities for innovation personnel, beyond those in R&D­—roles that are viewed as legitimate across the company. Let them take the fruits of R&D and create wholly new business platforms. Provide them with stimulating career growth opportunities that leverage their innovation talent and interests.

Recognizing Discovery, Incubation and Acceleration competencies at the project, platform and portfolio levels provide a perfect framework for designing innovation roles. Together with the Chief Innovation Officer and Orchestrator roles that lead the Innovation Management system, an Innovation function with staying power is finally becoming a reality.–Gina Colarelli O’Connor

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