Profiling the Innovation Practitioner

Since 1992 ?What If! has been hiring, working alongside, and learning from some of the best innovators in the world. Here, Matt Bolton, Innovation Capability Director at ?What If! Europe, shares some informal observations on effective innovation practitioners based on our work with large companies building innovation capabilities.
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The Unsung Heroes of Innovation

The fact is that everyone in business should consider him- or herself an innovator—innovation is more an approach to business than a role. But increasingly, there are a number of people in corporations who do have ‘innovation’ in their job title or job description; and while there is of course no set profile of an innovator, looking at some of the behavioural characteristics of different types of corporate innovators can be revealing.

There are the entrepreneurs who’ve built a business and somehow managed to stick with the mother ship; valued for their instinct, they are content to play a creative role as their management teams get on and run the business.

Then we see innovation officers or innovation programme leaders, running incubator teams or large-scale innovation projects. These are heavyweight players scanning the horizons, managing portfolios of projects and with great access to the top of the company. A lot rides on their performance, and they have deep pockets. We know these people well, and work with them all over the world.

Finally, we come to the unsung heroes of innovation—competent executives who are rewarded for their operational ability with an innovation assignment, or an expectation that ‘filling the innovation funnel’ is part of their job. For these people, who often have no innovation training or coaching, learning is a question of trial and error; keeping their energy up as they battle the rest of their organisation is a constant challenge. Striking the right balance between their innovation work and their day job often seems futile. These are the ‘innovation practitioners,’ and we’ve met thousands of them in all types of businesses. Although this type of role can seem daunting, and frankly lonely, it also comes with plenty of upside. Being asked to perform at ‘innovation practitioner’-level opens a lot of doors; it can be a terrific learning experience and career platform.

We’re often asked by our clients to help them select their innovation practitioners, and we work hard to help them identify more assertive personalities who are up for the inevitable battles—for resources and ideas—as opposed to team players who might be good at nutting out a compromise but are unwilling to get out of their comfort zone, confront uncomfortable truths or defend new ideas.

Some oft-overlooked characteristics of successful innovation practitioners…

Up for a Challenge
Innovators thrive on being charged with complex challenges. They actively look for debate; we rarely detect any defensiveness when an opinion contrary to theirs is expressed—quite the opposite. Practitioners see a challenge as an opportunity to broaden their thinking and push their ideas forward.

Able to Make Things Real
Successful innovators have a healthy disrespect for living solely in the conceptual world. They don't enjoy endless clever conversation, preferring to hang out with the designer, the model maker, the IT engineer or the manufacturing head. Their over-riding concern is how to take a thought and bring it alive, something that encourages useful feedback and enthusiasm. They know that when something is real it feels more achievable.

Numerative and Operational
Innovation practitioners need to be able to size up an opportunity quickly. They need the ability to say ‘no’ to a project if it’s likely to become a rabbit hole or misadventure. They also need to know how to get things done—to be a ‘completer finisher.’ A track record of having ‘done stuff’ is critical.

The ‘Fess Up’ Factor
Innovation practitioners need a robust balance of ego and ambition; they need to be self aware and open to acknowledging and correcting the inevitable missteps. They create a healthy reputation for giving a damn, being frank, and ‘fessing up’ to mishaps—but most importantly, for doing something about it.

Belief: More Than Just a Job
Innovation practitioners have to work hard to engage the support of project sponsors. To begin with, practitioners need to believe deeply in what they’re doing! They also need to be enthusiastic and to understand that it’s their role to infect others with their spirit. Innovation is part rigour and part faith.

Being Human
Innovation practitioners need to blend logical operational skills with emotional human skills. They’re generally good at spotting what the issue really is—the one that no one dares speak. They’re good at getting under the skin of people’s motivation, at working out how consumers or colleagues really tick. They always throw themselves into a situation that will open their eyes to the user experience. On a recent project exploring what the inside of a family car might look like our client, an innovation practitioner went on a series of car journeys with different types of families. Crushed in the back of a small car was a price well worth paying for the insight and appreciation they gained. This is human thinking.

Innovation practitioners don't respect the past, or pay much attention to the ‘way things are done around here.’ This can be an irritating quality in a colleague, but taking a contrary position and exploring the world outside the tramlines of work does liberate the mind and encourage others to explore alternatives.

Identifying Innovation Practitioners
After thousands of interviews searching for innovation practitioners, we have gathered many tips:

  • Look for ‘innovation joy.’ Ask questions about an innovation the candidate wished they had invented. You’ll see innovation joy in their eyes and hear it in the way they speak.
  • Get a balance between understanding a candidate’s track record (you need ‘doers’) and their ability to think conceptually and audaciously (you need dreamers, too).
  • Observe practitioner candidates in a group and see how they bounce off each other. You could put your two lead candidates head-to-head and see whether they work together or if it becomes a battle of the egos. This is unusual practice, but highly effective.
  • Don’t play it safe. You’ll never find the perfect person, and taking risks is part of the innovation process. We have seen too many clients appoint suboptimal people into innovation practitioner roles. People who had little credibility were sunk from the start—and so was the client’s investment in the whole project.

Once you have chosen your hero, that’s where the important work starts. It’s an exposed position; they need to have a genuine dialogue, not a ‘reporting’ relationship with their boss. So turn on the regular feedback. I’ve seen some people go way off-track in the early days, but then triumph through quality feedback. This has to be outside of appraisal time and done regularly based on things you’ve seen and heard about. Don’t shy away from the tough stuff, but deliver it with good intent. Finally, give them freedom to explore and learn. Don’t worry if they aren’t at their desk much. In fact, worry if they are!

FROM the greenhouse