Thursday, July 12, 2012

Four Faces of an Innovator

Lord Brahma from a Sculptural Textbook

We know that innovators combine multiple skills and thinking styles - divergent and convergent thinking styles, left and right brain skills, creative thinking and entrepreneurial thinking etc. I realized that the super successful innovators do something lot more complex than that - combine four distinct personalities. The four personalities are not only distinct but also conflicting in certain aspects. If you wonder how they manage to do this, believe me, you are not alone - it took me six years of study of the personality profile of innovators across different domains to understand this. Here I wish to share my insights on the complex, multi-dimensional personality of an Innovator. 

(Image - The Hindu God Brahma, who created the universe and set it in motion, is depicted with four faces. Brahma represents the infinite spirit, and is one of the three primary Vedic Gods (others being Shiva the destroyer and Vishnu the protector) known as the Trimurtis.)

My first observation is that successful Innovations, across different domains / industries, have four components in common :
  • first getting an insightful idea 
  • next figuring out how to create value out of the idea 
  • executing the idea well
  • and finally making it a success in the Market.
We very rarely find excellence, in either individuals or organizations,  in all these four domains of creative ideation, value creation, execution and commercialization. This is the prime reason for the poor conversion (less than 5%) of ideas into innovations. To succeed in Innovation, individuals have to hone all these four skills. Organizations need to create a diverse, cross-functional team by bringing together people who are strong in one or more of these four domains. 

They need to measure progress and improve their innovation process from all these four perspectives - the four reliable metrics, to measure innovation progress are
(a) quality of the idea,
(b) strength of the value proposition,
(c) how well the idea has been executed  and
(d) how successful is it in the market.

The skills that an Innovator needs and the approach that he / she adopts for success in each of these four domains is significantly different.
  • to get an insightful idea - the Innovator is focused on knowledge - he needs to constantly acquire knowledge for knowledge sake, willingly share knowledge with others, be open to new ideas across multiple domains, naturally curious and always be open to possibilities (B-type Personality)
  • to create value out of the idea  - the Innovator is focused on strategy - need to think like an entrepreneur, look at things from a customer's perspective, think in a divergent manner, empathize with the customer, create a strategy to take the idea to the Customer (K-type Personality).
  • executing the idea - the Innovator is fully focused on execution - demonstrate the willingness and discipline to follow instruction, pursue continuous improvement,  be ready to temporarily lose identity and work with a large cross functional team without any ego (S-type Personality).
  • making it a success in the Market - the Innovator is focused on monetization -  needs to think strategically, create and follow a road map, predict trends in evolution, understand market forces and be quick to respond to changes (V-type Personality). 
Success in Innovation needs excellence in all four domains
  • If your Innovation team lacks B-type persons, your ideas will not be insightful enough to create value in newer ways to Customers. You may be good in execution and monetization, but the impact will be minimal because of the incremental nature of the idea.
    • Teresa Amabile has discussed the creativity killers and the traps that exist in large organizations and prevent creative ideas from fluorishing (refer to her HBR papers). 
    • Phil McKinney (author of Beyond the Obvious & Killer Innovation) has recommended killer questions that could trigger insightful ideas.
  • If your Innovation team lacks K-type persons, you will have great ideas but you will struggle to create value out of it - you wont have a sound strategy to take it to your Customer. Your teams skills in execution and monetization remains largely unutilized. Xerox PARC had created many ground breaking ideas but they had very limitted success in commercializing them. There are many instances of innovators who got inspired by Xerox's ideas and created highly successful innovations.
  • If your Innovation team lacks S-type persons, then you may come up with many insightful ideas, create value out of it and know how to make money out of it but you will invariably mess it up during execution.
    • Scott Belsky (author Making Ideas Happen) stresses the importance of execution - many great ideas fail to become innovations because they were poorly executed. Organizations do not suffer from lack of ideas but poor execution of ideas. 
    • Vijay Govindaran and Chris Trimble (in their book - the other side of innovation) focus on solving the execution challenge and making innovation happen.
  • If your Innovation team lacks V-type persons, you will be working with great ideas, create good value out of it, execute it well yet you will be struggling to make it a profitable business, even if it makes profit initially you wont be able to sustain it, you will falter in responding to the dynamics of the Market. Tesla's great idea of connecting the world (wireless) got killed because his financier could not figure out how to make money out of it.

The Real Challenge of Innovation - Switching between the four faces

The Innovator needs to be calm, balanced and unselfish to allow insightful ideas to sprout in his mind. He needs to switch over and become very passionate to create value out of the Idea and think strategically to predict & overcome the barriers. He again needs to switch over and execute the idea dispassionately in a disciplined manner. The final switch over happens when he aggressively enters the market with his idea, tracks and pursues all the sources of revenue and hunts down competition without any mercy. The real challenge for the Innovator is to make these switches at the right time and play the appropriate role. In each of these four phases, he is a totally different animal. It is very important that he keeps constantly switching between these four personalities and play his role well as the Idea evolves into an Innovation.

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