Some years ago I took on the challenge of building an innovation center and organization in China for a Fortune 500 firm. Full of excitement and passion, I started hiring some great talent and jumped headlong into the role of leader, coach, mentor and manager.  Like so many other organizational leaders in China at that time, I had a very young team and we needed to skill-up. Being a rather seasoned innovation manager, I pulled out my innovation toolbox and got to work training my organization on how to use the tools.

They learned quickly, more quickly in fact than I ever imagined possible.

Within 18 months or so, they had developed a solid Innovation Skillset foundation. But the business results still lagged behind.  They were using all the processes, templates, systematic approaches.

So what was missing?

What did I forget?…

We didn’t have an Innovation Mindset.

A Great Innovation Skillset is Not Enough

My search led me to understand that that there was a need well beyond the Innovation Skillset… in fact an even greater need. I needed to help my team and leaders cultivate an Innovation Mindset. But how to do that?  It’s one thing to tell people to “go disrupt yourself”, give them great books to read, share examples, etc. That’s all very inspiring and most of us love that sort of visionary and inspirational story sharing.

But it doesn’t often generate scalable and sustainable results.  I’m an engineer and a business leader. I needed a proven system with tools and methods that could really develop an Innovation Mindset. And I found one.  Turns out it has been around for about 30 years, but only recently easily accessible available.

The Innovation Equation

Through some wonderful research over the course of more than 3 decades, Richard Byrd and his daughter Jacqueline Byrd developed a very robust approach to understanding why some of us are more innovative than others.  In her book, the Innovation Equation, Jacqueline Byrd shares the context and details. This is not only a great read, but more importantly and amazing tool. I could now understand this thing I was calling Innovation Mindset. It’s a combination of Creativity and Risk Taking.  In fact, that’s the Innovation Equation develop by Jacqueline Byrd and Creatrix. (Please check this out! It’s such a great tool.)



More importantly (for the engineer in me), we can now understand the fundamental drivers for both Creativity and Risk Taking. And we if we can measure it, we can improve it. The graphic below shows the key drivers for both Creativity and Risk Taking.

Be careful what you ask for!

Now here’s the funny thing we learned about an innovation mindset; it’s both a blessing AND a curse. How could an innovation mindset possibly be a curse?  Well, let’s use the Innovation Equation and a simple question to understand the answer.  Look at the key drivers for Creativity in the graphic above and ask “What’s the opposite?” In a business context, what’s the opposite of Ambiguity? Of Independent? Of Inner-Directed?  The graphic below shows examples of these opposites.

Do you see something interesting here?  The more we push individuals in our organization towards creativity, the more we potentially push them away from attributes like Process and Target Clarity, Team Player, and Customer Centric… etc.  Wow… do we really want to do that?  What happens to the business if we’re all innovators?

The Innovative CEO – a blessing and a curse

More recently I was coaching a CEO in HK, let’s call him Robert.  Robert was the classic innovator, always full of great ideas, always building on other’s ideas, able to take significant risks and extremely agile. So agile in fact, that he drove his senior leadership team crazy.  It seemed Robert was changing the targets nearly every other weekly team meeting. No matter what idea someone had, Robert had a better one. Pretty soon, the team stopped coming to Robert with ideas… why bother? Innovators are great at finding new directions, but pretty miserable at managing the core business for effectiveness and efficiency. (Check out this HBR article for more insight into why.)

The fact is we NEED consistency, team players, customer focus, etc. We actually need the opposite of creativity in many daily operations of our business.

True innovators don’t value things like consistent targets and clarity of process.

They like “new”, “different”, “ever-changing”, even “unusual” and “unconventional”.

Those are not exactly words we like to use to describe our customer complaint management system, our procurement processes, our financial controllership or our order delivery systems. The fact is we NEED Consistency, Team Players, Customer Focus, etc. We actually need the opposite of creativity in many daily operations of our business

It’s all about balance and focus

So what’s the answer?  We need innovation and we need innovators in our organization. However, we also need to manage the core and drive consistency, teamwork, customer focus, etc. We must have both.

I’ll share a secret with you… most likely, you already have both in your organization today.  You just need to determine where and who they are. That’s one guiding principle of Innovation Mindset. Just about any organization can consistently deliver significant innovation results with only about 20-25% of the organization leveraging and developing their Innovation Mindset. In fact, anything more than 25% in an organization, and the daily operations tend to suffer. We start to lose things like consistency, resulting lower productivity and efficiency. We simply need to know where these attributes are in our organization, and how to access them when we need them. (Check out the Creatrix assessment tool for this purpose.)

Leverage the great talent we already have

By identifying the talent in our organization that already has a natural bias towards innovation, we’ve taken the first step. We know who they are. Now we can help them further develop those skills, AND we can use our talent most effectively. When we need a disruption, we know whom to call upon. And we can bring innovation to many areas of our business by leveraging this talent more often. Pull them into the team when it’s time to innovate the customer complaint management system. Use them again on a team that’s looking into a step change improvement in order delivery. We need innovations across all our business practices.

“One could become mediocre when he/she focus on weakness, but focusing on strengths only can take people to excellence”Sivakumar Palaniappan

The key is not to try and drive the Innovation Mindset across 80% of the organization, or even 50%. That’s incredibly difficult, and frankly it’s too risky. It’s far more effective to leverage and grow the talent we currently have, and do it with greater purpose. (See an interesting Forbes article on the same.) These individuals can also help our organizations connect across boundaries inside and outside the walls of the firm, building our Innovation Connections. More on that in the coming posts.

Pulling it all together

We all need a good Innovation Skillset. We need the right strategy, processes, tools and metrics, etc. But Innovation Skillset alone rarely drives sustainable results. We also need a strong Innovation Mindset to keep our innovation engine running. While startup leaders thrive on the Innovation Mindset day in and day out, larger organizations that have to manage a mature business may not want to try and move the entire organization towards significantly more creativity and risk taking.

Leadership will find a better balance of results by leveraging and growing specific individuals in their organizations, and cultivating the Innovation Mindset more accurately, and with far greater impact to growth and productivity. So, who are your innovators right now?  How can they be further developed? Further leveraged in support of innovation needs outside of their current focus areas?

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Martin Daffner

Founder and Chief Innovation Architect at Emerge Innovation
I was born in Montana, USA and have lived and worked in three continents and five countries. I've spent the last 10 years in Asia. As a former organizational leader and now professor, my passion has always been building and developing talent... one relationship at a time. I'm fascinated by the ability of individuals and teams to harness a growth mindset, creativity, risk taking and personal relationships to achieve the incredible both personally and professionally. If you share any of these interests, I would be very happy to connect with you.

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