The chief thing you as an innovation leader must realize is that when it comes to making innovation happen, people matter more than ideas.
Take a moment to think about that. Many innovation initiatives fail miserably because their leaders don’t understand this simple fact. In fact, it is actually more important to have A-grade people than it is to have a slew of A-grade ideas because A-grade people can take a B-grade idea – or perhaps even a C-grade idea – and turn it into a successful reality. B-grade people, on the other hand, will struggle with even truly great ideas.
So before you get all fired up about generating a ton of ideas, first figure out how you’re going to match those ideas to people who can make things happen.
As you start this work, here’s another key point to remember: the skills needed to lead and manage a project within the existing core business – where innovation is likely to be incremental and resources plentiful – are significantly different from the skills needed to overcome the challenges and obstacles that greet almost any new business project – where resources may be hard to come by and the innovation involved may be significant or even radical. You need to staff new business projects with people having a mindset and toolbox that match this different challenge.
I recently coached teams working to create new business ideas with a big potential. The managers more or less thought this was business development as usual – as they usually do with core projects – and they did not understand the dynamics of such new business development or innovation projects. Their biggest mistake was that they attached people without passion for the specific challenge to the idea – you need people who have their heart and skin in the game when it comes to developing innovation projects, especially if it has some kind of radical or breakthrough potential.
You also need different people for the different phases of the innovation process. Just as some entrepreneurs are better at running a company at its very early stage and others are better at helping the business scale once the product is launched, so too are there intrapreneurs who are better suited both in terms of mindset and skills to various phases of the innovation process.
Where to Look
Once you accept the importance of finding not only the right ideas but also the right people – your company’s potential intrapreneurs – how do you identify these folks? A few possibilities – from the simple to the more complex – include:
1. Look around you
- One simple way to find the people you need is to look for people who persistently follow up on ideas they have previously put forth. You have scores of employees who submit ideas and expect others to deliver on this. Nothing happens in such cases. But if you can find one person who keeps showing passion and persistence about their one idea, you’ll be farther ahead than if you have 600 people who each submitted an idea but who don’t really have an interest in doing the hard work required to make their idea real. With one persistent and qualified contributor – and a good idea – things can happen fast.
- Look for people who are persistent about their ideas, people who work on their ideas on their own and who perhaps even gather other people to help work on it. If the idea is good and you have this kind of person to drive it, you have something to build on.
2. Internal business plan competition
- A much more formalized way to identify potential intrapreneurs is through internal business plan competitions similar to those held by leading universities. A well-designed competition accomplishes many things. It helps you identify intrapreneurs, moves ideas with real potential forward, helps participants upgrade their intrapreneurial skills and provides a method for matching these A-grade people with good ideas in the future.
3. Intrapreneur-in-residence program
- Why not adopt the entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) practice that venture capital firms use and create your own intrapreneur-in-residence program? The role of an EIR varies, but typically it involves an individual who wants to start a company. Sometimes the entrepreneur has already spent a great deal of time on an idea that the venture company might invest in upon further development or the EIR acts as a ‘partner’ and helps the venture capitalist evaluate potential deals where the entrepreneur has a particular expertise.
- An EIR might also spend some time with an existing portfolio company to provide his or her functional expertise. In this scenario, the EIR will sometimes enter the company as a full time executive (typically CEO or some ‘C’ level role) if the company and the executive feel there is a good fit.
Why not use this model to establish an intrapreneur-in-residence program within your company? This could be an adjunct to a business plan competition. Having identified people with intrapreneurial potential in the competition, you can assign them to the role of intrapreneur-in-residence for a set period of time. The key here is to define what role this individual would have; this should be based on what outcomes you’d like to achieve with such a program.
The approach is especially useful when companies work to develop a new platform of business activities that in the early beginning still consists of many small, early stage projects. You wait to see how this specifically talented intrapreneur should be brought into action and until you decide on a full-time executive role in one of the projects the intrapreneur consults on the many projects.
I hope you share my belief that people matter more than ideas. As a follow-up post to this, I will soon look into idea harvesting and filtering strategies and other techniques to make sure the ideas you generate are on target.