Cartoon: innovation manager talking to manager

The Innovation Manager's Dilemma

The world's most innovative companies do not have people holding the positions of innovation manager (or directors or vice presidents) for the simple reason that it is not necessary. Top innovating companies already have cultures that foster creative thinking and the implementation of novel ideas into profitable innovations.

So, if you have been given the position of innovation manager at your company, this implies two things. Firstly, your employer is not a great innovator and is likely not even close to achieving such a status. Secondly, and more positively, top management realises this and is attempting to do something about it. You are a big part of that, which is something to take pride in. Nevertheless, you have a lot of work ahead of you and it will not be easy.

As an innovation manager, you have three choices as to how to approach your job.

1. Cautiously Ineffectual

This is probably the easiest approach. You implement an idea management software (or takeover an existing implementation) to capture ideas from employees, you run brainstorms and you hire a corporate creativity trainer to run a few conventional creativity workshops. The result will be a huge number of ideas. Although most of the ideas will be unimpressive, the quantity will look good on your reports and Powerpoint presentations. This will make you look good in the short term and if you get promoted into something else soon enough, you won't need to worry about the long term!

Cautiously ineffectual is safe, because you do what you are told to do, have some nice reports glowing with idea counts and creative initiatives you launched. You can probably count on a promotion in a couple of years, getting you safely away from innovation, before people start to realise what is missing from your actions: innovation.

Unfortunately, cautiousness and innovation do not mix. If you want to make a real difference in innovation, you need to be a little less cautious and take a different approach to your job.


2. Serious About Innovation

Innovation managers who are more serious about innovation read voraciously on the subject. They often launch idea management software and organise brainstorms early in their new position. However, they soon realise that while these initiatives are capturing lots of ideas, few of those ideas are truly creative and even fewer are being implemented.

As a result, serious innovation managers read more deeply and, thanks to their experience, they soon learn that much of the Internet blogspace is full of bull-poop. Blog posts that suggest that a company needs to change radically its corporate culture in order to innovate better may be correct, but such an action is well beyond the scope of the innovation manager. Heck, it is probably beyond the scope of the average CEOs who would be more than a little challenged to change the culture of a company with 10,000 or more employees! Likewise, blog writers who insist having more ideas is the solution to every innovation problem do not understand the headache of having databases full of unacted-upon ideas.

However, the serious innovation manager also discovers that there is likewise a lot of useful information out there. It simply requires sifting through the mire to find writers who understand the situation, opportunities and constraints the typical innovation manager faces.

The serious innovation manager understands the constraints to innovation in her organisation, but she also recognises opportunities. For example, she often has a wider remit than other managers if only because top management is a bit vague on innovation and has just told her to get on with it. Better still, a great many innovation managers report directly to top management -- which makes it easier to get their ideas heard and approved.

With an understanding of corporate innovation and knowledge of what she is realistically capable of within her company, the serious innovation manager takes innovation to the next step. She brings in less conventional trainers to hold workshops, she focuses idea generation on corporate strategic vision and she struggles to find ways to ensure more ideas are implemented.

She makes a difference and her work is recognised and appreciated by top management.

Nevertheless, she also takes risks. She asks, and possibly insists, that top management make changes. She pushes people in other divisions to take innovation seriously in spite of not having the authority to tell other managers what to do. She deletes a lot of ideas and and stops pointless ideation exercises. As a result, there is the chance that she will make enemies; that overly comfortable managers will refuse to cooperate as they prefer comfort and security over the uncertainty of innovation and change.

However, because the serious innovation manager understands her company, she does not try to implement serious change, she does not stray far from the corporate line and she is realistic in her ambitions.


3. The Innovative Innovation Manager

Every now and again, often by accident, an organisation will assign a truly creative and ambitious person to take on the role of innovation manager. This person is determined to make serious changes in how the business operates in order to make it more innovative.

The innovative innovation managers knows innovation, has lots of ideas and is likely a little naive about the company where she works. She is unlikely to waste much time on ideation initiatives such as software and brainstorms and more likely to dive in, identify creative thinkers and support them.

She identifies barriers to innovation in her company and tries to break them down or work out ways around those barriers. In particular, she looks at the barriers that prevent creative ideas from being taken seriously, let alone implemented.

She realises that asking for permission often results in a "no" answers and so does not ask permission.

She takes advantage of her direct line to top management, often irritating top management who had hoped for someone more compliant.

She tries to launch initiatives that work, such as skunkworks, innovative business plan competitions and training programmes that go beyond the usual creativity workshops.

In short, she really tries to make her employer more innovative and often loses her job as a result of it. That's because the innovative innovation manager tries to change things in a big way in an organisation full of people who do not like change very much. She meets with resistance in many of her efforts and often becomes frustrated. Management either decides that innovation is not working and so closes down the initiative; or they replace the innovative innovation manager with someone less ambitious. Often, the innovative innovation manager becomes frustrated and looks for a new job elsewhere.

But sometimes, she succeeds. And when she does, the results can be impressive. An organisation can change its ways and adopt focused innovation that leads to real results and a boosted bottom line. But this is rare. Very rare.


What Should You Do?

Most of the innovation managers I talk to are in the serious innovation manager category. And I believe that in terms of career security and satisfaction, this is probably the best route to take: don't try to change your organisation too much -- but do what you can with the opportunities, constraints and knowledge you have. You can look forward to positive results and keeping your job!

Cautiously ineffectual is boring. If you have a real interest in innovation -- and I hope you do -- you should be more ambitious!

If you fall into the category of innovative innovation manager, you do not need or want me to advise you. You are already trying to change things in your organisation.



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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