The future of innovation is about the people, stupid. Firms have spent an enormous amount of energy and money installing and improving their processes for innovating and creating new products. However, innovation doesn’t happen because of some process that has been installed in the organisation . People make innovation happen. And the future of innovation – and by that I mean the more radical, creative, and breakthrough innovation – is quite bleak unless and until firms invest more time and energy in supporting the people who deliver these types of innovation.
The majority of the individuals responsible for breakthrough innovation come out of the technology side of the firm. In general, these individuals, sometimes called “hero scientists,” are deeply trained and well versed in technologies new and old. However, technology developed just for technology’s sake may not ultimately result in profits for the firm. Remember IBM’s Josephson Junction ( HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi_Josephson_junction" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi_Josephson_junction )? Great technology, but not really converted into a successful product that made money for the firm.
Technology is only one side of the coin, however, in achieving breakthrough innovations. We find that “Serial Innovators,” individuals in large, mature firms who are associated with one after another new product development breakthrough innovation success are more than just technologists. As with many technologists, they exhibit creative capabilities. However, they are differentiated from others because they have additional knowledge across multiple other domains. For example, they have a strong understanding of business and the firm’s strategy, which allows them to pursue projects that will be acceptable to management. They believe that technology is only a means to an end – and that end is to make money for the firm. They have strong knowledge both of the market in aggregate and market trends as well as of individual customer needs. Additionally, they develop the political skills necessary to obtain firm acceptance of the projects they pursue. They are successful because, rather than starting from a technology, they start from an “interesting problem,” which they define as being important for some set of customers to have a solution to, has the potential to bring in significant revenue, fits with the firm’s strategy, and likely is a solvable problem.
Not all technologists have the potential to become Serial Innovators. However, squashing those that do have the potential may result in a firm not being able to come up with game-changing new products over the long run. Thus, the firm needs to put mechanisms in place that will allow them to identify potential Serial Innovators early in their career and provide them with additional training and knowledge about business, strategy, marketing, understanding customer needs, and managing the politics of the organisation . Additionally, the firm will have to manage these individuals differently than the “average” technologist, giving them more freedom and access to travel and investigation budgets.