Trade secrets: Managing the innovators

Innovation is a prime source of sustainable competitive advantage, and very often is the single most important factor separating the commercial success stories from the also-rans.

Businesses that ignore the need for innovation usually find they are unable to keep pace with rapidly changing technological developments and customer requirements. But look at high-profile brand companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon and Easyjet, and it’s clear they all recognise that to develop products and services that offer value for customers, they must place innovation at the core of the business.

For this reason, business leaders, politicians and academics frequently stress that employers should do all they can to remove barriers to innovation and stimulate creativity within their organisations. These barriers can take the form of internal political wrangling, too much comfort with the existing status quo, inappropriate management measurement systems, and insufficient time being allowed for talented people to be creative.

Inspiring innovation

But knowing how to tackle such problems can be a real challenge for many businesses. So what can employers do to ensure that innovation becomes ingrained in the organisational DNA?

If innovation is to take root, organisations need to stimulate an environment that allows creativity to flourish, and then put in place processes to successfully harness the ideas and energy of their employees.

The most innovative organisations generally tend to:

  • Allow a diversity of opinions to exist within their business
  • Consider the value of ideas that arise outside of their business
  • Tolerate certain degrees of failure (otherwise staff will stop putting ideas forward)
  • Incentivise and reward employees for innovation
  • Encourage knowledge-sharing and put in place systems to capture knowledge
  • Regularly introduce new talent at senior management levels
  • Ensure an appropriate mix of management styles
  • Put in place checks and balances that screen out inappropriate ideas at an early stage before time and financial resource is invested.

These are all important factors that have to be addressed at a senior management level, and then cascaded down throughout an organisation by managers who are visibly committed to the nurturing of innovation in the organisation.

At the same time, employers must do all they can to ensure that they effectively channel efforts at an individual level, and for this reason, must not overlook the challenges that are inherent in managing innovative people.

Coping with creativity

In a study of more than 400 employers from across Europe, development consultancy Cubiks discovered that innovation is the competency that organisations find most difficult to develop in their staff, and one of the hardest competencies to assess at selection stage. Not surprisingly, genuine innovators are considered to be highly valuable resources.

However, dangers can arise if ‘ideas people’ are put on pedestals and treated as heroes.

If the innovators are allowed to overshadow those who are responsible for implementing their ideas, it can encourage the more creative staff to display working styles that are both difficult to channel and hugely detrimental to the wider team effort.

Innovators often have very strong abilities in the area of conceptual thinking, for example, but a strong aversion to the more detailed aspects of product development and project scoping. Such people often wish to be free to generate lots of ideas for follow-up by the wider team, and prefer to avoid the time-consuming research and analysis that is needed to establish whether a potential product or service is either commercially viable or capable of implementation.

Managing innovators can be challenging when those who are required to carry out the actual implementation of their ideas become disenchanted by the volume of follow-up work required of them. They will have their own existing workload to deal with, and poor planning and lack of consultation may mean they now have a further workload with an unrealistic deadline for completion.

When this happens, it is common for such team members to begin looking for reasons to throw out or undermine potentially lucrative ideas rather than exploring their viability in full.

One of the most common reasons why projects fail is because leaders fail to gain the buy-in of team members at the outset, and there is a lesson here for innovators. If they simply become recognised as generators of work rather than enablers or ‘do-ers’, they will quickly see their efforts thwarted by those around them. This is not good for the business or staff relations.

It is vital that creative individuals and those responsible for managing them are able to recognise how their behaviour affects team dynamics, acknowledge any development needs, and find a productive way to bridge the gap between idea generation and idea evaluation and implementation.

These issues aside, it is imperative that employers create a business culture that allows innovation to thrive, as by successfully harnessing the competencies of creative people, employers can achieve long-term competitive advantage. To ensure this happens, managers must work hard to ensure that the competencies of talented innovators are channelled for the benefit, and not the detriment, of team dynamics.


The steps below will help your organisation find the right balance between fostering innovation and putting creativity into practice:

  • Put in place a rigorous new product development (NPD) process – Organisations must devise a product development process that allows the best ideas to be fast-tracked and ‘duds’ to be filtered out before they place a significant drain on resources.
  • Ensure the NPD process is followed Dominant or charismatic individuals will often try to push through the ideas they are strongly committed to, sometimes creating significant financial risks. Strong management is needed to ensure that such individuals follow the NPD process and are not allowed to set a bad example by bending the rules.
  • Assess the personality of team members When putting together teams or cross-functional working groups that are responsible for innovation, research and development and marketing, organisations should first assess the preferred working styles of different team members to create smarter, more effective teams. By using tools such as personality assessments and team role questionnaires, team leaders can quickly understand areas of strength, weakness and potential conflict, and then substitute or add resources as required. For example, if it emerges that a team contains a lot of innovators, but no organisers, the manager should seek to draft in individuals with a strong organiser profile.
  • Use 360-degree feedback to help individuals address blind spots – It is not always easy for an individual to pinpoint their own strengths, weaknesses and development needs and adapt them to different commercial environments. In these situations, 360-degree feedback processes can make a real difference. By drawing together the views of an individual’s manager, peers and direct reports to produce a combined, objective review of performance, these systems can provide valuable information for personal development planning.
  • Encourage innovators to roll up their sleeves If innovators demonstrate to other team members that they are prepared to work alongside them on the analysis activities, investigating factors such as whether similar products already exist in the market, likely development costs versus sales returns, how easy it would be for competitors to copy the product and the costs of marketing the product effectively, they are likely to find that help is much more forthcoming from colleagues.
  • Ensure regular injections of fresh blood – To use a horrible management term, it can become very difficult for well-established, long-serving team members to ‘think outside the box’, particularly if they have been trained to follow a particular company ‘way’. To counter this, new talent must be introduced at regular intervals.
  • Consider expert forecasting – Sometimes organisations can benefit from asking highly respected industry visionaries for their views on the prospects for a market or product.
  • Consider jury forecasting – An alternative to expert forecasting is jury forecasting, whereby a mix of well-informed individuals from inside and outside a company are convened to discuss options under the guidance of an impartial chairperson.

Our Expert

Nick Parfitt is a member of the management team at international HR consultancy Cubiks.

He is a regular industry commentator on current HR issues and trends, writing for a number of national publications and appearing in a weekly slot on BBC radio.

Parfitt has a particular interest in HR matters relating to online assessment, interview techniques, and how management actions affect individuals.

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