Sunday, November 30, 2008

HBR Dec 2008 Article: “Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators”

Missing the mark:

Broadly this is mostly an insightful article attempting to address the two key problems one encounters when dealing with the issue of innovation talent. First, how do you find your innovators? And second, what do you do with them once you do? But it misses the mark in a very crucial way - which adds to the understanding of why innovation is such a difficult thing to manage.

Stories like this lump into “innovation talent” two distinctly different types of talent. One talent is the creative design talent. This is a key talent in artistic enterprises such as art, music, movies, architecture, etc.,. It is also key in some aspects of business like the design that Apple builds into its products. The other key talent is problem-solving. Problem-solving is the talent most useful for gaining competitive advantage in business. We innovate to gain competitive advantage. When we innovate, we gain competitive advantage by solving a customer problem better than the competition. We do this by creating new knowledge in solving the problem, and we protect this knowledge to the extent possible.

The authors fail to recognize the valuable talent for innovation in business is a talent for problem-solving, plain and simple. While they don’t talk specifically about problem-solvers, they do describe what great problem-solvers are capable of doing. “The best innovators have very strong cognitive abilities including excellent analytic skills…They can frame and reframe challenges from multiple vantage points[1]…They zero in on the most important points and waste no time on peripheral issues[2]… innovators home in on the most critical components, see connections, and discern how to bridge different parts; they work hard and efficiently to recombine these pieces…[3]” This describes a great problem solver.

A great example of this skill is found in looking at how Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman backed up his off-hand, but specious boast in the Princeton lounge: “It’s easy to calculate e raised to any power using the series [4]:

Of course Feynman’s fellow PhD students knew this was nonsense, and immediately challenged him:
“Oh yeah, well, then, what’s e to the 3.3?”
“That’s easy.” Says Feynman. “It’s 27.1…”.
Did he use this complicated series formula to calculate this? No. He had that great problem solving knack for seeing connections and discerning how to bridge them.
Here are the facts, which somehow popped into his head:
e = 2.71828…(he memorize e just because he used it a lot)
e to the 2.3 ≈ 10 (mathematician need to be able to convert base e to base 10 which Feynman had eventually memorized: e2.3026 =10)
e to the (x+y) = e to the x * e to the y.
Thus, Feynman calculated e to the 3.3 is equal to e to the (1+2.3) = e to the 1 * e to the 2.3 which is 2.71828*10, or 27.1…and he adjusted by estimating the difference between 2.3 and 2.3026 as the exponent. The answer was slightly less than 27.1828. When he got that right his colleagues gave him two more:
What is e to the 3?
What is e to the 1.4?
He used one additional fact he knew as a physicist who had to calculate half lives of radioactive materials, which is that e to the .7 ≈ 2 (e to the .69315 = 2). With this knowledge and the formula e to the (x+y) = e to the x * e to the y even you could estimate e to the 3 ≈ 20 or e to the 1.4 ≈ 4. Of course Feynman was more precise because he estimated for slight differences.

The point is Feynman had that very analytic mind which was capable of coming up with ways to break a problem down and synthesize a solution using those facts. In business, this is the basic talent you need in your innovators. It’s problem-solving.

The authors then go into outer space with statements like innovators can “identify which solutions are likeliest to be embraced by the influential people in their organization…[6]” and innovators are “ridiculously social aware of their surroundings at all times…[7]” That hey can “walk into a conference room…and quickly discern the underlying motivation of each one. They leverage that information to craft and communicate a message that resonates with every constituent.[8]

Wow! This is not consistent with my experience. Nor is it consistent with Feynman’s. Perhaps the title of his last book tells it all: What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Dr Robert Sutton at Stanford wrote about the real characteristics of talented innovators in his book Weird Ideas That Work. It is pretty much exactly the opposite. Sutton says that the kind of people the company has to have to come up with these innovative ideas are your “deviants, heretics, eccentrics, crackpots, weirdoes and just plain original thinkers.”[9]

These are usually ‘low self monitors’. They are unable to, or at least don’t try to read other people’s non-verbal communication. Aside from being creative problem solvers, they tend to avoid contact with coworkers, have notoriously high self esteem, and are guided by an inner compass that pays little attention to how other people feel.

Actually, reading the HBR article, you get the intuition that the authors aren’t so sure about this high EQ talent idea. After all, why would you need to mentor someone who was such an extraordinary innovator who could walk into a room and command the emotional environment in a convincing way. The authors later in the article talk about taking innovators with ‘high potential’ (whatever that means) and mentoring them to defend their ideas and recognize their weaknesses[10]. In many respects, it is a fool’s errand to try to teach great problem solvers to develop a high sensitivity to other people’s individual underlying motivations. They really don’t care what other people think, and are disinclined to develop that talent. It is much more profitable to identify people with problem solving talent and marry them up to people who are savvy about interpersonal politics to work together in delivering results.

The also get right the idea that normal jobs may not be the right place for these problem-solving innovators suggesting that companies should be “careful to place innovators outside the regular structure” indicating that, for example, JP Morgan Chase “…creates new positions for rising stars if appropriate ones don’t exist.” The activity of finding great problem solvers and determining the best ways to apply their talents is what my company is all about. You cannot let this talent bubble up, because in most hierarchical companies it won’t. You have to aggressively search it out and that is our specialty. Then you need to tailor the business environment and assignments for the individual problem-solver based on his or her talents and baggage.

[1] Paragraph 9
[2] Paragraph 8
[3] Paragraph 6
[4] R. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, W.W. Norton &Co., New York,1985, p. 192
[6] Paragraph 9
[7] Paragraph 10
[8] Paragraph 10
[9] R Sutton, Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company,Free Press, New York, 2002 P. 36
[10] Page box “Idea in Practice”