Monday, August 11, 2014

The People Who Innovate: Hiring, Managing, and Empowering Innovation Teams

James Stikeleather
Executive Strategist

We live in unprecedented times. Over the past twenty years, nothing has transformed business as thoroughly, or as frequently as the need to innovate – our products and services, our operating models, our business models, and now our management models. Though innovation can happen by chance, that shouldn't leave your company crossing its fingers and hoping for the next big idea to come along. How can we prepare ourselves, our teams, and our organizations to be continuously and sustainably innovating? In this keynote presentation from the 8th Annual Innovation in New Product Development: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, James Stikeleather, Executive Strategist at Dell, offered some insight.


Most people think that innovation is defined by a new product or a new service. However, the newest technology does not drive change, Stikeleather said, but rather just accelerates the change that is already occurring.

The real key to sustainable innovation is having the right people, the right leadership, and the right culture in place.


Innovation requires three different types of people, Stikeleather said:

  • The innovators who create new ideas
  • People who can manifest those ideas and make them feasible, and
  • Those who can function as a market driver to communicate the innovation to people so they buy it or invest in it. 

Those people don’t need to come from outside the organization, Stikeleather said. Dell believes companies can train employees they already have to innovate, and to do that they must create an environment that allows people innovate. That requires developing a common way of talking about innovation that’s consistent with the organization’s culture, as well as offering the right rewards and incentives for new innovations.

One key that Stikeleather stressed is that this cultural change must come from the top. When innovation is the goal, the leader’s role  changes compared to other management situations, Stikeleather said.

Leaders must be actively engaged as participants and function more as mentors, rather than managers. It’s important for executives to listen to ideas without judgment, and to break the rules in order to stimulate innovation.


When it comes to innovation, businesses often struggle with knowing where to begin. To get started, Stikeleather said, organizations should:

  • Create an “innovation group” to function as mentors, facilitators, and accelerators of cultural change.
  • Alter management styles to encourage cultural change from the top down.
  • Develop the necessary structure for innovation, including the processes, frameworks, and systems for generating, refining, and implementing new ideas.
  • Establish an “innovation portfolio,” and evaluate the group based on how many of those innovations the group can kill off, either through successful implementation or by trying new ideas and failing.

This innovation group should be a temporary arrangement, Stikeleather said. Once everything is working, the company should dismantle the group and make innovation the responsibility of everyone in the organization.


Most companies can do anything once, Stikeleather said, but the real key when it comes to innovation is whether they can do it sustainably. Doing that requires an adjustment in how the entire organization thinks and functions.


How can a company become more innovative? One key is to move from convergent to divergent thinking.
Convergent thinking is objective, rational, and analytic, and it revolves around specific details, Stikeleather said. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is more creative, holistic, and qualitative.


For organizations moving to a more innovative culture, Stikeleather offered three dimensions of success:

1. Attitude – Leaders must move to a more visionary role in order to drive innovation, but at the same time they have to be pragmatic and practical.

2. Focus – Innovation can only do so much at one time, so it’s important to focus efforts on key areas. Leaders should ask:

  • What creates the most value for our customers? 
  • What can we do better than anybody else? 
  • What are we required to do for legal and regulatory reasons?

3. Technology and business models – For innovation to be sustainable and repeatable, organizations must standardize what they’re doing and make sure the right processes and systems are in place.


When people think about innovation, they most often think of it in terms of creating new products and services. However, organizations typically get more value out of innovating with business models and business processes, Stikeleather said.

In fact, research has shown that the return on investment is 30 times greater for business model and business process innovation than with products and services innovation.


To help drive that process innovation, organizations must ask themselves: What are you going to do differently than you do today?

A key area to look at should be how the organization can be simplified, Stikeleather said. The hardest thing will be figuring out what parts to give up, but it’s important to understand that letting someone else handle those processes can help the company focus on what it does best.


When encouraging business model and business process innovation, leaders must let people sound off their ideas and help them determine if they are valuable and viable.

In addition, as with any other business initiative, measuring success is critical. Organizations need to develop and track appropriate metrics, Stikeleather said. Unless companies can measure success, they won’t know if the efforts to improve innovation are working.


To create an innovative culture, leaders must limit regulations and laws in the organization, Stikeleather said. Companies shouldn’t make people do things just for the sake of having a rule in place. Rules are often the biggest barrier to innovation, and breaking the rules is critical for creativity.

For more valuable insight from the 8th Annual Innovation in New Product Development: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, be sure download a copy of Frost & Sullivan’s Executive MindXchange Chronicles, a collection of the key take-aways and best practices from all of the event’s presentations and interactive sessions.

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