You want and need the best, most brilliant, most awesome-est people at your company. But with unemployment at a record low, the battle for top talent is fierce.
So, you vow not to enter the battle and invest in keeping your best people and building a reputation that attracts other extraordinary talents.
You offer high salaries, great benefits, flexible work arrangements, the prestige of working for your company, and the promise of rapid career progression. All things easily matched or beaten by other companies, so you get creative.
Your best people are full of ideas and have the confidence and energy to make things happen. So, you unleash them. You host hackathons and shark tanks. You install idea collection software and run contests. You offer training on how to be more innovative. You encourage employees to spend 20% of their time on passion projects.
And they quit.
They quit participating in all the opportunities you offer.
They quit sharing ideas.
They quit your company,
Not because they are ungrateful.
Or because they don’t want to innovate.
Or because they don’t have ideas.
They quit because they realize one of the following “truths”
They’re not “Innovators”
High performers believe they need to work on an innovation project to progress (because management explicitly or implicitly communicates this). But when they finally get their chance, they struggle. The project falls behind schedule, struggles to meet objectives, and is quietly canceled. They see this as a failure. They believe they failed.
But they didn’t fail. They learned something very uncomfortable – they’re not good at everything.
Innovation is different than Operation. When you’re operating, you’re working in a world full of knowledge, where cause and effect are predictable and “better” is easily defined. When you’re innovating, you’re working in a world full of assumptions, where things are unpredictable, patterns emerge slowly, and few things are defined. Most people are great at operating. Some people are great at innovating. Extraordinarily few are great at both.
Innovation is a hobby, not an imperative
The problem with innovation efforts like hackathons, shark tanks, and “20% Time” is that people pour their hearts and souls into them and get nothing in return. Sure, an award, a photo with the CEO, and bragging rights motivate them for a few weeks. But when their hard work isn’t nurtured, developed, and brought to a conclusion (either launched or shelved), they realize it was all a ruse.
They are disappointed but hope the next time will be different. It isn’t.
They stop participating to spend time on “more important” things (their “real” work). But they still care, so they keep tabs on other people’s efforts, quietly hoping this time will be different. It isn’t.
They grow cynical.
They choose to stay and accept that innovation isn’t valued or resign and go somewhere it is.
Their potential is bigger than your box
“I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Before the training, the world was black and white. After, it was full color. I don’t want to go back to black and white.”
For this person, the training had gone wonderfully awry.
The training built their innovation skills but motivated them to find another job because it opened their eyes. They realized that while they loved the uncertainty and creativity of innovation, their place in the organization wouldn’t allow them to innovate. They were in a box on an org chart. They no longer wanted to be in that box, but the company expected them to stay.
But are these “truths” true?
As Mom always said, actions speak louder than words.
- Who does your company value more – innovators or operators? The answer lies in who you promote.
- Is innovation a strategic priority? The answer lies in where and how you allocate resources (people, money, and time).
- Do you want to retain the person or the resource? The answer lies in your willingness to support the person’s growth.
Speak the truth early and often
If a top performer struggles in an innovation role, don’t wait until the project “fails” to reassure them that operators are as (or more) important and loved as innovators. Connect them with senior execs who faced the same challenges. Make sure their next role is as desirable as their current one.
(Or, if innovators are truly valued more than operators, tell them that, too.)
If innovation is an imperative, commit as much time and effort to planning what happens after the event as you do planning the event itself. Have answers to how people will be freed up to continue to work on their projects, money will be allocated, and decisions will be made.
(Or, if innovation really is a corporate hobby, follow the model of top universities and let people participate f they want and give everyone else time off to pursue their hobbies).
If you want to retain the person more than the resource, work with them to plot a path to the next role. Be honest about the time and challenge of moving between boxes and the effects on their career. And if they still want to break out of the box, help them.
(Or, if you want them to stay in the box, tell them that, too.)
Don’t let Innovation! drive away your top talent. Use honesty to keep them.