Innovation Roles for Managers
Excerpted from a whitepaper produced by The Mangement Centre.
Almost every organisation — charity, public body or private corporation — sees innovation as a key competency for the 21st century. Marketing guru Philip Kotler says, “the only sustainable competitive advantages are creativity and innovation.” His argument goes that since it’s almost impossible to develop a service or product that will not be copied, the only way to stay ahead — or even perhaps to survive — is to keep reinventing the way you work.
In his book “Business @ the Speed of Thought,” Bill Gates summarises the same idea in a very practical but challenging way: “In three years every product we make will be obsolete. The only question is whether we’ll make them obsolete or if someone else will.”
In the commercial field, after a massive rethink of the business it was in, IBM has moved from almost 90 years as a manufacturer of computers to being essentially a management consultancy in a decade. And in the charity world, organisations like LEPRA — originally set up almost 80 years ago to tackle leprosy — now have moved on to deal with other illnesses such as HIV and tuberculosis.
A typology of roles
So what can we learn from these organisations? How do organisations sustain this innovation impulse? Part of the answer lies in the roles that managers play in stimulating innovation. The process of innovation and creativity is complex and involves many factors. But for an organisation to succeed, managers have to successfully encourage others to innovate. And they can do this by playing one of several roles. We can divide these roles up into a simple typology.
* Mentors adopt individuals or even ideas, ensuring they achieve their full potential through careful nurturing throughout their life cycle. They help organise connections with key decision makers, and cut aside layers of bureaucracy to ensure appropriate innovation wins through and is recognised at the top.
* Gardeners see themselves as responsible for making sure that the organisational culture is capable of sustaining ideas. So the emphasis is on creating a general culture where innovative ideas can flourish. Such a culture is probably supportive and allows experiment and risk. The gardener can look after or nurture ideas in their early stages, but there comes a time when ideas have to grow by themselves.
* Talent scouts complement the mentor and gardener. Like the mentor she or he is focused on individual people. But their unique contribution is in seeking talent from “outside.” They focus on identifying and hiring the best people and ensuring they come on board — whether full- or part-time employees or consultants.
* Catalysts in science produce radical change in a normally stable substance. In the context of innovation, a catalyst is someone who stimulates people who work in an organisation with a constant supply of ideas and information. These stimuli can be trends or challenges that the organisation needs to respond to, or techniques being adopted and used elsewhere that the organisation should try and adopt. The catalyst role involves helping the existing structure to change by bringing together diverse elements — teams or individuals to create reaction. One point to note is that once you create the reaction you can’t control it.
* Mash-up artist is a phrase taken from music in which an artist combines elements from different songs — and even other media — to create something new. An innovation mash-up artist is a manager who combines and controls in an organisational sense, tearing down silos, mixing up teams, linking unlikely ideas and bringing in outsiders with the specific aim of challenging current thinking. The key difference with the catalyst is that this time the artist is directing the process.
* Ethnographers study and learn from human behaviours across cultures and generations. In an innovation sense they search for needs and interests that are not yet met or even fully expressed by the organisation’s customers or users. So for example, they might identify that users of a service are increasingly concerned about access to a service at night and therefore would change patterns of staff hours or offer online support to meet this need.
* Venture intellectual capitalists act as fund-holders who can invest in and support ideas and new offerings. They generate and sustain a portfolio of new offerings with fast return and high ROI x 2 (return on investment and return on innovation). They tend to be budget holders with relatively free rein and good minds for spotting long shot-ideas with a chance to succeed. It’s important to allow the venture intellectual capitalist to be judged across a whole portfolio rather than on a case-by-case basis.
When to use the roles
You probably don’t need all of these roles in your organisation but you certainly need some. And their appropriateness can vary depending on the culture of your organisation.
Ethnographers research culture a great deal and look for ways that customers are using certain products and services and then work to adapt them. A similar approach is suitable for an organisation like Greenpeace, which campaigns globally on an issue but needs to adapt the campaigns to different cultures.
Oxfam, on the other hand, adopts a more gardening approach with the role of innovation firmly located in learning and development. The task there is to create an organisational framework in which others can succeed and innovate.