Blogger Stefan Lindegaard recently threw down a challenge to innovation practitioners: Where are people in your innovation processes? Here are some of the many ways you can focus on the people part of your innovation initiatives.

“So my question to all the thought leaders and leading practitioners out there is this: Where is your people focus? Why do you not talk more about the people who drive innovation? Why not let us know about the mindset, traits and skills you think people working with innovation should have? In your view, how can companies identify and develop these people?”

That was the challenge thrown down by Stefan Lindegaard this week in his great blog. So let’s answer his challenge… As we have discussed many, many times in the past, innovation is really a process. A process that begins with creativity and ends with action. Along the innovation process spectrum, there are people who are better at coming up with ideas vs. managing the process vs. building the idea prototypes vs. obtaining the support and funding vs. finding new problems to solve.

Ideas have many sources:

  • Employees
  • Research and development teams
  • Customers
  • Vendors
  • Marketing/sales team
  • Competitors
  • Leadership
  • Patent Searches
  • Academic Institutions
  • Business partnerships
  • Best/next practice reviews
  • Association memberships
  • Conferences

What all of those sources have in common is that each and every idea starts with one person. Those who excel at developing ideas and solving problems have many common skill sets and traits. They are:

  • Skilled at alternative thinking styles
  • Excel at individual problem solving
  • Able to participate in or facilitate group ideation settings
  • Able to see weak signals of future trends
  • Able to identify root causation of problems
  • Comfortable with taking calculated risks
  • Not bothered by fear of failure (or success)
  • Able to maintain an imaginative and creative approach to problems and/or opportunities
  • Able to analyze and learn from failures
  • Able to assume leadership responsibility
  • Able to translate ideas into objects (physical, visual, etc.)

Then there are the roles that are important for moving ideas from concept to reality:

  • Idea generator – The origination point of an idea
  • Idea champion – The person responsible for shaping the idea, building a business case and keeping it moving forward
  • Idea sponsor – The person who secures the resources (money, human, time) to explore the idea and who provides “cover” for the idea to keep it safe
  • Process manager – The person who manages the innovation/idea process to ensure ideas have an easy to access and repeatable path to follow
  • Engineer or prototype builder – The person who brings the idea to life (on a drawing board, in a lab, virtually, physically, etc.)
  • Project manager and implementation team – The people who manage the process and create/implement an actual object, business process and/or service based on the idea
  • Sales and marketing teams – The people who convince others to purchase the output of the new idea, thus making it an official innovation

But how do you protect these people and help them stay connected?

  • Look for the mavericks who feel constrained by your current processes and procedures and who develop alternative methods
  • Reward those who challenge the status quo
  • Encourage self-organizing teams
  • Mandate cross-functional teams
  • Implement collaboration tools like conference rooms/idea centers, blogs, message boards, wikis, groupware, etc.
  • Provide training on expanding their natural innovative/creative skills
  • Provide cover and support and appreciation for fast failures
  • Demonstrate that risk taking is okay

And what about keeping people motivated to keep the idea pipeline full?

  • Public recognition
  • Money
  • Idea lottery
  • Frequent idea point program
  • Calls, notes or personal visits from senior leadership
  • Ice cream socials
  • Promotions within the innovation management group
  • Temporary assignment to work on the idea
  • Award ceremony for the best failure
  • Great idea awards banquet

As you can see, there is absolutely no question, and Stefan identifies it clearly in his blog entry, that people make innovation happen. The best thing management can do to help is to provide the resources, freedom, flexibility, protection, support and then stay out of the way!