Monday, May 04, 2015

Unpacking What It Means To Be An Innovator

I’ve never been one to take compliments very well, a combination of being overwhelmed when lavished by a half dozen crazy (effusive) aunts and a mother who was determined to instill humility into me.

In my now concluded career, I didn’t set out to be an innovator, but when tagged with that attribute while serving three different communities and asked how it might be adopted elsewhere; I began to study what it means.

Fortunately, a new discipline began to emerge early in my now-concluded four-decade career called behavioral economics.  It has been just as important as organizational behavior in helping unwrap the 70% of our decision making that is emotional and seemingly innate vs. rational.

Gallup applies behavioral economics in its relentless study of individuals’ strengths and how some can make such a difference in the productivity of some organizations over others.

In Durham, where I live, we have had a head start.  One of the discipline's “rock stars,” Dr. Dan Ariely is one of our own.

Dr. Roland Fryer at Harvard has use behavioral economics to analyze how impoverished societies around the world, including African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S., often work to hold peer members back from doing what it takes to lift themselves out of poverty.

But I’ve learned the most about what makes some people innovators from a trio of researchers with connections to BYU, my alma mater, who authored a book based on their study entitled, The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators.

The book is jam-packed, but in addition to outlining what makes innovators different, the authors note studies showing that “roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of what we do innovatively stems from genetics.”

“Two-thirds of our innovation skills, they continue, “still come through learning-first from understanding the skill, then practicing it, and ultimately gaining confidence in our capacity to create.”

They also put their finger on why people thought I was somehow innovative.  One of the “discovery skills” they identify as central to being innovative is “association thinking.”

This is the ability to “discover new directions by making connections across seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.”

This is why I preferred to think of myself as maybe an “early-adopter” or “fast follower,” because it was somehow easy for me to see those unrelated connections to our work.

I won’t get into the other “discovery skills” they found, which differ from associational thinking because they are behavioral, but one is questioning everything, especially the status quo.  Innovators see things as broken.

I was also an entrepreneur in my field of community marketing because I was always involved with startups.  Not all innovators are entrepreneurs but I’m not sure you can truly be an entrepreneur without being innovative.

But all innovative entrepreneurs score very high in two areas, associational thinking and questioning.

In contrast, CEOs who are not innovators focus almost solely on “delivering,” what I affectionately call list-checking while innovative CEOs spend at least 50% of their time on “discovery.”

This is why I was always at my best and able to sustain innovation well in the corporate cultures I led well beyond the startup and growth stages.  I tried to surround myself with people who shared innovation as a skill at some level but who were also skilled deliverers.

Most organizations are not innovative because they don’t foster it as part of their organizational culture, leaving them top heavy at delivering but vulnerable to stagnation.

If an organization can sustain an innovative culture and innovative leadership well past the growth stage, the study found they outperform their peers.

Unfortunately, as the authors who are all business professors note, Business schools teach people how to be deliverers, not discoverers.

Rarely do I see a resume these days that isn’t salt and peppered with self-identified attributes such as strategic, innovative, entrepreneurial and growth-oriented.

Applicants would be better off explaining how eager they are to be in and learn from a culture with those attributes because the process is continuous and never-ending.

If you truly aspire to be innovative, read the book The Innovators DNA and take the assessment at its website.  It will identify your strengths in that regard and where you need to focus on building that skill.

The business professors behind this work are Drs. Clayton Christensen at Harvard, Jeff Dyer at BYU and Hal Gregersen at MIT and INSTEAD, who have also developed the Innovator’s Accelerator, an intensive online learning experience.

Today, organizations that don’t perpetually innovate are doomed to stagnation.

Unfortunately, unless governing boards, which constantly rotate members, are firmly committed to innovative leadership during CEO succession, even cultures where innovation is firmly entrenched can begin to stagnate in a matter of weeks and months.

It is possible to reignite innovation but it is rare.  Being innovative requires a certain nimbleness, what Dr. Christensen calls the ability to pivot strategy.

He often cites research by a Harvard college that found that 93% of successful innovators had pivoted to a strategy different than the one adopted at startup.

Experts at McKinsey & Company recently published a list of factors that distinguish innovative organizations.  Note what the high performers do right.  When it comes to a culture of discovery, high performers in the first quartile outperform those in the next one down by nearly 3 to 1.

Christensen, et al. have documented what they call an “innovation premium” of more than 20 percentage points.  For those able to sustain and institutionalize an innovation culture through all phases of  an organization’s lifecycle, it is 40%.

There is even a bigger dividend for analytical innovators.  As analytics are embraced more and more, the competitive advantage they provide will wane unless organizations are among the 12% an MIT Sloan study found to be analytical innovators.

Being a good manager means minimizing surprises and uncertainty.  It is why “being a good manager can make you a bad innovator.”  An innovation culture “savors surprises.”

The secret is finding and sustaining the right balance between execution and exploration.

Are you sure you want to warrant “innovator” on your resume?

Then roll up your sleeves and start reading for understanding and then begin practicing.  Don’t skim looking for thunderbolts, look for unrelated associations.

Not your cup of tea or strength?  Then hire people who are innovators with an appreciation for execution and build it into your organizational culture and values.

In the words of marketer Tom Martin, seek out “explorers, not experts.”  Resist peer pressure trying to pull you back into the status quo.  Get used to being different.

Savor surprises.  Embrace uncertainty.  Question everything.  Hang on tight.

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