The Innovator's Responsibility

I've just returned from a meeting about an exciting and innovative new business venture. Whether it succeeds or not - only time will tell - but the process of our meeting reminded me of an important human activity that we all engage in. 

We had finished talking about this venture, analysing it from different angles and exploring possible options that we could pursue. Before we left, we discussed the research and activities that we had to do next - and then we allocated these roles to different people. 

This act is not rocket science, but is core to human collective behaviour. When we want something to be done, we give someone the responsibility and role to do it.

This happens in sport - where we allocate some people to be defenders, or goal-keepers, or strikers - and expect them to play the role that they have. When a team is leaking goals, the media and public often analyse the defenders and goal-keepers - as it is their responsibility to stop their opponents from scoring. They don't criticise the strikers, as they have a different focus and responsibility.

Obviously, this responsibility also translates into the business environment. Within any healthy organisation, it should be easy to answer the question, "Who's responsible for the finances? Who is in charge of communication? Who manages sales?"

 Usually, we can quickly point to the person who is in charge of each area, and assess how well the organisation is doing in this activity. 

When it comes to innovation, however, an interesting paradigm occurs. Innovation has traditionally been viewed as a mysterious activity, that sometimes 'just happens'.

As such, if I were to walk in your organisation today and ask, "Who is responsible for innovation?" - it is likely I would be met with some confused looks and requests for clarification. 

Most organisations do not have a structured approach to innovation, with little time or money (if any) allocated to developing new approaches, services and products, and no person responsible for increasing the innovative environment and gathering new knowledge from within the organisation.

This means most companies remain fairly creatively-stagnant - having brief bursts of innovation in different areas - but not having a dedicated person or program to making innovation part of the life-blood of the organisation. 

There is training and learning available to help develop people into Innovation Inspirers for your organisation, but before this happens, they need to have the role and the responsibility. Simply allocating a keen person this position - even if it only occupies 5% of their working week at first - could prove transformative for how innovation happens in your work place. The act of naming the role, and giving the responsibility can help enact purpose in your employees, and lead to some dynamic change.

When looking for people who may be suitable Innovation Inspirers, check to see if they have some of the following skills:

  • They should have excellent relationship skills across all levels of the business. You want someone who can move between different areas and pay-grades without feeling threatened or superior. These people can create interesting networks between unlikely employees.
  • They should love learning - whether this is new facts about the company, interesting trivia about bacteria, funny jokes and trends in Bolivia - you want someone who has an insatiable curiosity and a constant desire to learn more.
  • Ideally, they should be great at asking questions and even better at listening. Often, the right question can open up new perspectives and ideas that your organisation has never thought of. The ability to listen - without preconceptions of what the answer will be - is also essential to discovering new learnings that are occurring through your organisation.

These are some ideas to get you started - but why not consider allocating this role and responsibility for innovation to someone in your work place? Discuss this with other employees and managers, and begin to plan for the new potential this role could develop.