Let’s face it, creativity separates humans from the rest of the animals. Our species has opposable thumbs and with that, it seems, the inborn drive and ability to alter our environment. No wonder the topic of innovation ability provokes such primal emotions. Yet — like speed, intelligence or artistic talent — innovation talent is NOT distributed evenly across humanity. Given this truth, what is the best approach to driving more innovation in your workforce?

Gifford Pinchot first coined the term, “intrapreneur” back in 1978. He was one of the first to notice that:

  • Innovators are different from the general population;
  • Large organizations actually DO have plenty of innovators, and;
  • These folks that he dubbed “intrapreneurs” prefer to use their talents within an existing structure than go it alone.

Despite this knowledge, to this day, companies lack a systematic way to identify, leverage and develop intrapreneurial talent. At Swarm Vision, we work with a lot of large companies and have noticed some common approaches to driving innovation. These approaches all suffer from the assumption that everyone is, or can magically become, an innovator:

  • Companies move projects, people or technologies to a separate environment (e.g. an innovation center, incubator or accelerator) and the people already associated with these projects are moved with them. No consideration is given to their innate innovation abilities.
  • Companies throw open a wide net and ask everyone to contribute to innovation. Often lots of very incremental, irrelevant or repetitive ideas tend to result.
  • Companies put cohorts of employees through innovation training, usually focused around a process such as Design Thinking or Lean Start-Up, in the hopes this will make them more innovative.
  • Companies try to instill a culture of innovation, talk a lot about “failing fast.” But management – often chosen for their success in the established business – punish people for experimenting.

If you have tried any of these approaches and are not blown away by the results, please read on. These approaches would be far more effective if they took into consideration one fact: that innovation talent is NOT evenly distributed across humanity. To drive home the point, here are the distributions of innovation talent in two of our clients’ workforces.

Swarm Innovation Scores by Decile

Notice that:

  • At the slow-growing company, only 17 percent of talent score above the 50th percentile for innovation talent (blue or magenta).
  • Whereas at the fast-growing company, fully 38 percent of talent score above the 50th percentile for innovation talent.

These are similar-sized samples from two companies of the same age (both were founded about 75 years ago), both shipping hard goods. Clearly, there appears to be a correlation between innovation talent and company growth. Swarm makes your innovation talent visible for the first time, so you can manage this huge driver of business performance.

If you are willing to consider that some people are more innovative than others, and that innovation talent can now be measured, you can make massive advances in your innovation program. We invite you to discover three levers to increasing your innovation success, talent selection, talent organization and talent development. For perspective on this problem, we asked Steve Haraguchi, who has directed innovation programs at both Stanford and MIT.

Steve Haraguchi
Director, Professional Programs at Stanford University
Former Executive Director, MIT Innovation Initiative

“In my roles at Stanford and MIT, I’ve met with dozens of companies and organizations pushing an innovation agenda. The conversation inevitably drifts towards the next great technology, searching campuses for diamond-in-the-rough projects that will solve a problem for them, or a desire to launch new initiatives such as accelerators and prize competitions. I always ask, “Who are the people that will drive this forward? Are they already within your organization, or are they somewhere else? How will you find them, and how will you equip them with the innovation mindsets and skills they need to succeed in all of this activity?’’

The Biggest Lever: Talent Selection

Companies go to tremendous trouble and expense to select their workforce. It is understood that talent selection has a huge impact on business performance. But weirdly, innovation ability is generally not part of the upfront talent selection process. Aside from a few “stars,” most companies just don’t know who their innovators are.

This is why, when it comes to driving innovation, companies really are at Square One in terms of selecting talent likely to succeed. After all, innovation is a very different game with very different rules than the established business. Since we know innovators are very different than the general population, it follows that selecting people with innate innovation skills might be an advantage. The problem is, companies just don’t know how to recognize innovators, so they fall back on selecting people by functional skills, “high potentials,” the usual suspects, or whoever happens to be available. Companies should consider innovation talent in their hiring and retention efforts, as well as in selection of individuals for innovation initiatives.

Lever One: consider innovation ability in your talent selection.

The Second Lever: Talent Organization

It turns out that innovation talent is not a binary, “yes/no” condition. People fall somewhere on a continuum, Companies need four types of innovation or “horizons,” and employees tend to be suited for one horizon more than others. Here is a simple depiction of the innovation continuum and the four horizons of innovation.

The Innovation Continuum

Individuals fall on a continuum, from Continuous Improvement to Disruptive Innovation. Each of us will tend to thrive in one innovation horizon.

The Four Horizons of Innovation

Companies need to assign people to projects in the innovation horizon for which they are suited, Horizon 1s (incremental innovators) don’t tend to become Horizon 3s (disruptive innovators). Companies need all four kinds of innovators, just as they need all four kinds of innovation.

Companies also need to form innovation teams with good coverage of the 8 innovation skills.

Innovation Teams Need Good Coverage of the 8 Innovation Skills

Finally, companies need to keep an eye on their innovation talent mix. Over time, as products mature, companies tend to hire more and more process-oriented people who favor the status quo, or can drive continuous improvement.

H3s Tend to Decline as a Proportion of Hires Over Time

Lever Two: organize your workforce and structure teams according to their innovation talents.

The Third Lever: Talent Development

Once you have selected innovators and assigned them to the innovation horizon and to teams for which they are suited, can training improve outcomes? If so, what kind of training?

Clients ask us all the time whether innovation can be trained at all. Our position is that by adulthood, about 75-80 percent of our ability is pretty baked in. Nature and nurture combined are mighty forces. But that means that 20-25 percent of our ability may be malleable. But not everyone is equally malleable.

Employees in the Continuous Improvement range tend to be less curious, have less drive and less of a growth mindset. They are content with the status quo. They may be highly intelligent – IQ has nothing to do with it – but their minds are less elastic. Their training might focus on understanding and appreciating the 8 innovation skills so they can be more supportive of others. It might also focus on Lean Start-Up, teaching them to form hypotheses and design small experiments to reduce innovation risk.

In contrast, employees in H3 (Disruptive Innovation), are wired to thrive in uncertainty and change. They have the curiosity, drive and growth mindset for innovation. Their training might focus on how to gather support for their initiatives, and how to navigate a large, complex organization.

Folks in H1 and H2 are plenty curious and elastic, and should get the most innovation training investment because: (A) they are responsive to training and; (B). they have room to grow. Knowing their specific innovation profiles means that you can hyper-target L&D dollars where needed, versus a “spray and pray” approach. Here are some examples of targeted innovation training:

  • Don’t waste L&D resources training someone on brainstorming who is already highly creative.
    • Instead, you can select people high on “Create” (using the Swarm dashboard), and tap them right away in brainstorming sessions.
  • The same employee may be weak on Control, which includes a certain Financial Orientation. This trait is often under-developed in large companies where money is seen as a “department.”
    • Whereas, from the very beginning of your process, employees need to find a large pain point that customers will pay money to solve.
  • We also find a common weakness in Rapid Pattern Recognition. Large companies tend to wait until a death notice has been posted before they take heed of impending disruption. A 10-pound “deck” is required with years of data (all backward looking, of course) before executives will take bold action.
    • Whereas, you can use Swarm to identify employees who already have the Rapid Pattern Recognition skill.
    • You can also include Rapid Pattern Recognition as a vital behavior in your culture of innovation program.

Lever Three: hyper-target innovation training according to individuals’ profiles.

The Five-Pronged Approach to Driving an Innovative Workforce

In closing, when it comes to driving an innovative workforce, talent selection, organization and development are still in their infancy. The major principle to keep in mind is that humans fall along a spectrum of innate innovation talent, and today, you can identify that talent quite accurately. Knowing this, we suggest that you take a five-pronged approach to driving a more innovative workforce:

  1. When selecting employees to join your organization, or for retention efforts, take innate innovation talent into account.
  2. Assign people to innovation initiatives, and teams, according to their innovation abilities.
  3. Consciously monitor your mix of innovation talent to ensure you have enough H2s and H3s to thrive in the future.
  4. Focus your L&D dollars on the employees likely to grow the most from that training (H1s and H2s).
  5. Deliver the specific training needed, according to each employee’s innovation profile.

About the author

Suzan Briganti brings 25 years of experience in research, strategy and innovation. Suzan has a patent pending in innovation software. She has grown Swarm Vision from a garage start-up to a trusted solution provider to global Fortune 500 clients. Swarm Vision is a platform to identify and leverage innovation talent in the enterprise to drive growth. Suzan leads Swarm Vision with a focus on building great products and teams. Suzan has an MBA summa cum laude from Boston University and a design degree from Italy. Contact:

Featured image via Yayimages.