What business managers want: influential innovators

by | Jun 16, 2018

I’m an innovators’ nurturer, I help companies improve the effectiveness of their innovators. For the decade I’ve been doing this job, the most common request I get from the managers who hire me is “make my innovators be influential.”

These managers run departments and teams of technologists (scientists, engineers, developers, etc.) whose job is to innovate for their companies. They usually come to me when these innovators have become ineffective, unable to demonstrate the business value of their work. The managers’ assumption is that their innovators have poor communication skills. But in my experience, this is rarely the issue. The real issue is that innovators are unable to see and understand the perspectives of the stakeholders that their ideas must go through. This is a major barrier to their success as innovators due to the way companies are set up. Companies are structured in silos: each one will have its own objectives, resources, offices and even subculture. Within these silos you will have disparate groups of stakeholders with divergent productivity criteria that innovators have to meet to develop and take their ideas to market. The bigger the company, the larger the number of stakeholders. Innovators are not trained to deal with this. They are trained to develop specialized technical mastery.

Early in their careers, innovators tend to have little to no dealings with stakeholders as their managers or some form of mediator e.g. product managers will do it for them. However, as innovators become more senior, expectations for them to manage stakeholders for their innovation are higher, it becomes harder for others to speak for them. Technologists spend years specializing in a particular area and can work on a single project for years. Their managers or mediators cannot match their domain knowledge nor fully articulate how it can solve a business or technical problem. For example, a patent lawyer would want to hear from the inventor of a new polymer not from her manager. If a company is going to release a software or detergent that is going to be used by millions of people, the key decision makers want to hear and question the lead technologists to ensure that it is a safe and viable product. Unless they are able to clearly and confidently convey the business benefits of an innovation key decision makers will hesitate to take it to market. The more this happens, the less confident innovators are no matter how technically brilliant they are. Inevitably they become less productive which means that their companies aren’t maximizing their return on investment in hiring them. Ultimately this impacts their most valuable asset (apart from people), intellectual property.

We often hear how innovation is about “thinking outside the box” but hardly about how crucial it is to think inside the box before going outside it. The inability to move ideas within a company is what frustrates innovators the most. This is a weighty problem as most innovation in absolute terms happens in big companies (though startups and small companies are better at disruptive innovation) such as Apple, IBM and General Electric who have both the people and financial resources to invest, invariably are large and complex organisations. The main players are the stakeholders. Thus, my job is first and foremost to train innovators to see and engage with stakeholders so they can apply this knowledge towards developing business-aligned ideas. I’ve worked with technologists who have turned their new understanding of the legal process for intellectual property into more patentable ideas. By the time they get to sit with patent lawyers they are armed with the right information. The same goes for dealings with marketing executives and other stakeholders. These innovators have become more influential. They see their ideas go to market sooner while they go on to win innovation awards and promotions.

In return, the managers astutely learn from seeing the results of my work with their more experienced innovators that it is invaluable to train innovators to be influential much earlier in their careers. They would have a better understanding of the business, – its complexities and challenges – but more so the purpose and value of their innovation.

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