Innovators: Profit-makers or Prophets?

Long ago, in what seems like universe far away, I worked as an innovator of new products within a start-up.  In more recent years as a facilitator, I work with a wide range of innovation team leaders within well-established hi-tech manufacturing organisations.  There’s something fundamentally different about the innovation environments at those stages of the organisation’s life-cycle.  Few talk about it, but it is important for aspirational innovators to be aware of.  Because, depending on their personality, in one world they may shine and in another, be tempted to turn to the dark side.

How do they differ?

In a start-up, innovators are often not just the originators, but tend to be the engines of the organisation’s core offering.  They may be a founding member or partner.  They help birth the “big new idea” that enables the organisation to come into being, to make an impact on the market – and to make profit.  So, they matter.  A lot.

As the business becomes more established, the role and privileges of innovators shifts.  It’s not right or wrong, it just is.  The nature of this is important to understand, if one hopes for a good “fit” as an innovator within a new employer.

So, what changes?

A business naturally evolves to function with growing numbers of customers and employees, and a broadening product range.  It introduces standard operating procedures for efficiencies, safety and easy on-boarding of new staff.  Systems become the organisation’s inner musculature atop the organisational structure.  Core beliefs about what is valued in the business emerge early on, as does a brand identity heavily influenced by the early product range.  New employees quickly identify with the brand, especially if young.  A large proportion of the general population likes to feel safe and supported in their work environment, so naturally many are attracted established businesses that appear strong and are willing to learn how to operate and thrive within the culture.

The more established a business becomes, the emphasis on product development grows in relation to that on innovation– tweaking the existing product range, finding ways to make the successful product perform better, how to manufacture it cheaper and faster for a familiar customer base.

Many businesses set up a New Product Introduction team to find new ways to utilise the technology underpinning the existing product range and sell more to their loyal customer base.

Meanwhile the market is changing – but typically faster than the organisation realises. NPI is rarely enough to disrupt existing norms sufficiently to unfreeze the attachment to how things have always been done.  A gap opens.

By the time a business realises that they have drifted significantly from their market’s expectations, radical change is typically required.  Not only is this likely to be painful, but existing management may be too culturally inured to know what or how to change, and even if they did, it may be beyond their capabilities (and heart)to implement.   Often it takes a new leader with a fresh perspective, or even acquisition by a competitor to bring in the necessary vision and commitment to return the business to a position of strategic advantage and renewed profit generation.

Some businesses have to foresight to mitigate arriving at this point by investing in an Innovation Team, giving it genuine license to look longer term.  They are tasked to propose potential new products that utilise emerging technologies and so keep the business in step with the market and ahead of competitors.

Frustratingly for them, such teams often encounter resistance when they bring their proposals to the top table. The future they suggest can seem too radical to colleagues operating in the safe familiar territory of the present.   Their proposals may call for new processes and systems, may require different raw materials, perhaps a reconfigured supply chain, address needs that are not yet envisaged, and may require new skills.

Added to which, Product Managers may significantly outnumber the Innovation Manager when pitching to the top table for funds and fresh action.  A further a crucial element of the dilemma is that Innovation Leaders tend to be mild-mannered, reflective, introverted characters, compared to their more extroverted, urgency-driven Product Manager peers.

So, if you’re hoping to join or lead an innovation team in an established tech business, you’ll possibly need to leave your ego at the door.  You may not be at the pinnacle of a hierarchy.  Although you may be bringing important messages to the business that could be crucial for its survival, you’ll need to be mindful that these could scare your peers and senior management.  Remind yourself regularly that opposition is likely more systemic than personal.  Expect to feel ignored and perceive that the business is paying lip service to innovation. A prophet does indeed find it much harder to be heard in their own land.

But this it to be expected – don’ give up.  Your main allies are…

Firstly, your personal resilience.  You’ll need empathy and tenacity so take good care of yourself and find good allies to offer moral support.

Secondly, your ability to craft a compelling narrative about your proposals. What is the why?  And small steps of the how?  Build prototypes that help bring the stories to life.

And thirdly, your ability to build influential relationships of respect and trust with key members of the management team.  Is this being political?  Yes, but any human environment is political.  Organisations are not machines, they are a complex tangle of collaborations between people of varying levels of power trying to make things happen.  You need to engage.

So – if you want to be an effective innovator in an established business, it pays to get your hands dirty with far more than the technology!  Learn to embrace all the above and even relish it, and you could become one of those rarities – a prophet who really is heard and significantly helps their business survive and thrive over the longer term.


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