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The loneliness of innovators


At the start of the summer I wrote a piece on the relative unpopularity of innovators attempting to enact change within organizations.  It referenced a couple of studies that highlighted the challenges innovators face internally.  For instance, one found that innovators were regarded as having lower leadership potential than their less creative peers.

What’s more, a second study then went on to reveal how unpopular innovators generally were, as the new things that often accompany innovation make people feel uncertain and uneasy, which in turn makes us regard innovators with suspicion.  If that wasn’t enough of course, this mindset also often prompts the luddites to favour what is familiar rather than what is novel.

In other words, innovation is not for the faint hearted.  Of course, when you innovate in a standalone company you have a good deal of support to keep you going through this challenging time.  Whether it’s business partners, investors, early adopters or fellow entrepreneurs, there is usually someone out there you can talk to and ensure your spirits don’t drop too much.

Innovators within organizations seldom have such a support network however, as was highlighted by a recent study.  The study underlines how lonely many innovators feel within their organizations.  It’s rare for innovators to have co-conspirators that they can turn to for support and advice as so many internal innovations tend to be led by a lone wolf battling the status quo.

The study suggested that for such people, the only real solace comes from inspirational books or possibly meeting like minded people at industry events.  It’s all rather a sad picture at a time when so many organizations are claiming to support innovation.

So how can organizations lend support to the heretics in their midst?

In the past, when organizations have attempted to be innovative, they’ve created skunkworks style teams that are sufficiently resourced, both financially and politically, to go about their work free from interference.  This is crucial, as the business as it stands exists to support the status quo.  The current way of doing things may generate substantial cash and give its supporters substantial clout and rewards.
Overcoming that is difficult, which is a major reason why so many organizations succumb to the innovators dilemma.  The innovation project has little of the certainty that the core business has, and whilst members and sponsors of the project may be comfortable with that uncertainty, other members of the business may not be.  You may be requesting a decent sized increase in investment, with very little track record to provide confidence in that investment.  What’s more, that investment may be made out of the budget of a more established part of the business.

There are some ways to help manage these conflicts, and they may help your projects flourish:

  • Pay for what you use – if your project utilizes shared resources, make sure you pay for them in full, and make sure it’s at market value.
  • Pay for what you commit – you might budget for 10 units of support, but only use 5, thus creating a temptation to only pay for the 5.  Resist that urge.  The business has supported you to the tune of 10 units, so pay for those 10 units.
  • Separate metrics – the core business might be worried that investing in the innovation project might see them take a hit on their metrics.  Therefore it’s important to ensure measurement is separated out.
  • Plan for risks – think through some of the contingencies you might need in advance, especially when forecasting is fuzzy and unpredictable
  • Unify the plan – arguably the most important step is to ensure that planning and budgeting decisions are made according to a single plan.  You may be requiring things from other parts of the business that haven’t secured their buy-in.  It’s much better to ensure that everyone is involved to ensure short and long-term goals are aligned.
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