Morning Manager
Harvey Schacter

Cultivating the innovators in your midst

In Harvard Business Review, consultants Jeffrey Cohn, John Katzenbach and Gus Vlak set out a six-stage process for finding breakthrough innovators and grooming them within an organization.

Scour ranks for raw talent
In most large organizations, the future innovators are hidden from senior management and deeply embedded in line jobs. You need to seek them out and at least temporarily disengage them from their duties. The best innovators have strong cognitive abilities; they zero in on important points and don’t waste time on peripheral issues. They never rest on their laurels, and are always looking for ways to improve themselves and the processes around them. They have an independent mind, but also work well with others.

Have the right folks
Once you have spotted the candidates, you need to determine which ones actually have the innovator’s spark and flair. Many of the companies the consultants explored – including Thomson Reuters PLC , Pitney Bowes Inc. and Visa Inc. – put them through one-on-one interviews, often conducted by outside assessment and leadership development experts. They are presented with a series of complex real-world scenarios from which some key information is omitted to gauge how they can weed through ambiguity – and then, as additional information is added, they are assessed for how they evaluate the potential impact.
“Can she turn that critical eye inward and change positions when warranted by the evidence, or does she cling tightly to past beliefs and mental models? True innovators never let pride or former success get in the way of a better solution,” the consultants note. Also important: Can the candidate clearly and convincingly defend a decision and sell a point of view?

Work with live ammo
Give innovators real projects to work on to prove they can recognize promising ideas and lead cross-functional teams of experts to develop those ideas. During this effort, assure them access to top management so their abilities and progress can be watched. One global industrial products company in Britain also insists rising innovators spend a stint in the sales department. It’s viewed as a good way to help the innovators understand what makes customers tick and sharpen the sales skills they will need to spearhead large-scale innovation down the road.

Provide multiple mentors
Pair innovators with carefully selected mentors who can groom them and offer advice on how to deal with people and situations the innovators will encounter turning their ideas into reality. In traditional mentoring situations, the mentor and acolyte stay together for a long time, but successful organizations are encouraging rising innovators to seek out different mentors over time. This gives them access to more ideas, and more flexibility to find the advice to fit a particular situation.

Foster peer networks
As well as providing mentors, give the innovators a chance to meet and talk with each other about their experiences. The opportunity to discuss with peers how they handle issues and the stress of innovation will be fruitful.

Replant them in the middle
After the innovators have been identified and developed – with mentors and peer networks in place – replant them in the middle of the organizational chart with ambiguous job responsibilities so that they will be free to act as innovation hubs, running with ideas and developing them through contacts they have developed. Formulate career paths for them that are suited to their abilities.