How to Spot an Innovator

How to Spot an Innovator

“I don’t know how I got into the program. I’m not innovative.”

For nearly two years, I’ve been the Dean of the Intrapreneurship Academy, a program I created in partnership with The Cable Center to help the industry’s rising stars learn how to be more effective innovators. Over the course of four cohorts, we’ve taught nearly 100 people from all over the world (US, India, Honduras, Panama, Columbia…just to name a few) the tools and mindsets of successful intrapreneurs and supported them as they did the hard work of making innovation happen in their companies.

And in every single cohort, a significant number of people pull me aside and say, “I don’t know how I got into the program. I’m not innovative.”

To which I respond, “The fact that you don’t think you are an innovator but someone in your company does means that you are.”

Why is this? Why do so many people have a misperception about whether or not they’re innovative? Why do people see others as innovative even if they don’t see themselves that way? While we’re on the subject, what makes someone an “innovator” to begin with?

What is an Innovator?

According to an Innovator is “a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products.”

That’s a perfectly good definition but it also means that when my husband says, “I have an idea, let’s install new lighting in my home office,” that he is an innovator and I’m just not willing to concede that (plus he usually chooses to sit in the dark so I’m not sure why he needs new lighting).

A better definition is rooted in my preferred definition of “innovation” and would be something like, “A person who does something new or different that creates value.” The last two words in that definition are critical because they differentiate invention (something new or different) from innovation (something new and different that create value) and therefore inventors from innovators. And, since I’m not convinced that new lighting will create value, gets me out of having to agree with my husband’s claim that his idea was innovative.

How NOT to spot an Innovator

Before we get into how to spot an innovator, I think it’s important to dispel a few myths that often lead to people being misidentified as innovators.

  1. They have a “look.” For a period of time in the early aughts, if you wore a black turtleneck you were likely to be labeled an “innovator” and, as a result, have everyone stare at you with eager anticipation of your next brilliant world-changing idea. Then the magic uniform became a hoodie and flip-flops, or thick-black rimmed hipster glasses ideally paired with a flannel shirt and ankle-length jeans. Hate to break it to you but, unless you live in the Marvel Universe, clothes do not imbue in their wearers with special super-powers, so don’t assume that someone is innovative just because they’re wearing the outfit du jour.
  2. They use innovation words all the time. Just because you can say a word doesn’t mean you know what it means, let alone that you can act on it. I can say “Python” and “Pandas” and “Numpy” (pronounced num-pie) and maybe even use those words in a sentence but I can’t define them for you and I sure as heck can write a program in Python or explain how and why pandas and numpies would be useful in such a program (my husband can, it’s what he does in his home office with the supposedly poor lighting). So if someone is always using terms like “disrupt” or “business model” or “lean start-up” or “design thinking,” ask them to define those terms AND explain how to put them in practice. If they can’t accurately do that, they’re not true innovators.
  3. They tell you that they’re innovative. One of my favorite quotes is by Margaret Thatcher who said, “Being in power is like being a lady…if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” The same thing is true for Innovators. If someone goes around telling people that they’re an innovator or that they’re an “ideas person,” you can be confident that they are not.

How to Spot an Innovator

Now that we know how to spot pretenders, here’s how to spot the real thing:

  1. They ask questions AND they listen to the answers. Lots of people ask questions but Innovators ask questions rooted in curiosity and a selfless desire to make things better. They say things like, “Why are we doing it this way?” and “What if we tried it that way?” and “I know we’ve always done it this way but what if…?” When you give them an answer, they listen and incorporate the new information into their thinking and their ideas.
  2. They’re not afraid to try doing things differently. Maintaining the status quo is safe and no one ever got fired for following the rules. But playing safe and following the rules doesn’t move us forward, it keeps us where we are (and maybe even causes us to fall behind). But doing something different involves taking a risk and that can be scary. Innovators are willing to take on that risk because helping others by improving or creating things is more important to them than their own comfort.
  3. They’re more interested in Doing than TalkingLet’s be honest, it’s fun to talk about innovation. It’s energizing to be part of a brainstorming session with brightly colored sticky notes flying around. It’s exciting to get together a small team to come up with an idea and pitch that idea to a Shark Tank. It’s fun to go on field trips to incubators and accelerators. But innovators don’t stop there, they don’t view those activities as signs of innovation success. They push to prototype and test the best idea from the brainstorming session, they demand dedicated funding and resources to bring their Shark Tank winning idea to life, and they do the hard slow work of applying their field trip lessons to foster a culture of innovation within the organization.

The innovators I teach and work with do all of the 3 things listed above and doing those things come so naturally to them that they don’t realize how uncommon, difficult, and important doing these things is. And yes, some of them also wear black turtlenecks or hoodies or hipster glasses (or all three at the same time!) but they don’t do wear these things because they’re innovators. They wear these things because they’re comfortable. And comfort is of the utmost importance when you’re doing the hard work of innovation.

A Career in Innovation, Part 2: The Meetings

A Career in Innovation, Part 2: The Meetings

Part 1 was all about the experience of working in Corporate Innovation so, naturally, Part 2 has to be about one of the biggest areas where time in a said career is spent: meetings.

After nearly pulling/spraining/breaking an ankle/wrist/elbow/shoulder/knee trying to navigate “The Fact of the Matter” (aka experiencing a career in innovation), I looked forward to the safety of the next installation.

Instead I walked into “The Differential Room”, aka every meeting a corporate innovator has to endure captured in a series of chalkboards.

The first team meeting

Chalkboard with instructions

“Point Point Line” (2015) from “The Differential Room” (2018) by William Forsythe

Kinda weird, kinda fun.

Just like your first meeting as a member of the Innovation team.

This is the moment when you realize you’re in a very different world. Instead of working on things that exist, that can be touched or experienced, that are known and explainable, you are now in an abstract and intangible world that is relying on you to define it, make it tangible, and explain it.

You’ve been given tools (fingers that make “points”) like customer research, access to people in the company, maybe even a bit of money and you’re expected to connect them together to something (a line). It’s up to you what form it takes, whether it is a product, a service, a process (e.g. how long the line is, whether it’s vertical or horizontal or diagonal).

You find that it’s rather fun to play around with options, to imagine what’s possible and, eventually, you actually begin to see what you’re creating.

People walk by and give you strange looks. Some stop to ask what you’re doing. You respond, “I’d make a business (line)! See! Isn’t it cool?” And they back away slowly, shake their heads, and return to their business.

Meeting with the Innovation Team Leader

It’s been fun designing the business (line) but you can’t stay there forever. It’s time to move on, to go deeper into the process.

It’s time to meet with your boss.

Chalkboard with instructions

“Standing on One Leg (1st Act)” (2018) from “The Differential Room” (2018) by William Forsythe

You know you have to be a bit more buttoned up and that you have to show her the option that you think is best (not all the lines you made, and tested, and discarded). So you prepare a presentation, excited to talk about lines

Yes, the meeting feels a bit like a performance, but that’s what meetings are. You’re surprised that, after presenting your business, your boss tells you that in addition to working on your business (line), you need to talk to this person in finance (stand on one leg), that person in legal (raise the heel of the standing foot), and these 3 people in supply chain (hop) AND do this all on the same deadline with no extra funding (not expressing exhaustion) BUT don’t let anyone know what you’re doing because that will slow you down (not…drawing any attention to yourself).

The Innovation Council Meeting

You’re now exhausted from hopping but you’ve successfully concealed that exhaustion and you can still make a line so it’s time to move deeper into the process and move one more rung up the ladder.

You and your boss prepare another presentation and you go to meet the Innovation Council — 5 people all one-level up from your boss and not involved in the team’s day to day work but definitely interested, somewhat supportive, and with budget to keep funding the work.

Chalkboard with instructions

“Starting at Any Corner” (2018) from “The Differential Room” (2018) by William Forsythe

More of a performance than the last meeting but, again, to be expected.

For some reason, they think your business (line) should be an app-based service (bench) that bolsters the revenue of an existing business instead of being a new source of revenue. They ask you to prototype the app (walk around the bench), share the prototype with the existing business team (walk alternately backwards and forwards), revise the prototype based on the existing business team’s feedback (complete turn alternately left or right), and model out a 5 year NPV (alternately accelerating or decelerating).

You should have known there would be numbers involved.

The C-Suite Meeting

It took you several attempts to complete the wishes of the innovation council and took much longer than you thought. Your business idea (line) is a distant memory, you now have an app-based service (bench) that seems far more complicated than it needs to be but makes the existing business team happy, and a financial model that, if you’re honest, has great numbers because you used Goal Seek.

Time to move on, right to the end of the installation and the top of the organization!

Chalkboard with instructions

“Without the Use of the Arms” (2018) from “The Differential Room” (2018) by William Forsythe

Before you could even start your presentation (performance), the questions and feedback started coming at you.

Some of the requests were understandable (lie flat on your back for thirteen counts, sit upright in thirteen counts) but then they slashed your budget (without the use of arms) while still expecting you to do what they asked.

Then they asked if you could launch in 2 months instead of 12 months (increase the angle of the leg to torso to one hundred eighty degrees) and get to $500M revenue in 12 months (keeping the elbows by the ribs, move the hands under the shoulders counting aloud to thirteen).

At some point you stopped listening because it all sounded like nonsense. What they were asking for was impossible.

You went in with an app-based service (bench) that everyone liked and looked good on paper and now you have…..what?

And BTW, the customer research (points) say that people want the business you designed 9 months ago (line)!

The “Planning for Next Year” Meeting

You’ve given up trying to understand, let alone act on, the last meeting. But you are no quitter. You carry on to the next installation. To the next meeting, the one in which the team is planning for next year, requesting the resources it will need to move faster and build bigger businesses.

Feather duster on granite pedestal with "Hold the object absolutely still" etched into it

“Towards the Diagnostic Gaze” (2013) by William Forsythe

“Looks like next year is going to be a down year for the company so they really need us to step up, do more, and generate at least $100M revenue. That said, they also have to cut our budget 75% and our team size in half.”


In Summary…

To be fair, not all companies are like this. But, to be honest, I’ve had 6 conversations THIS WEEK that were some variation of this. Conversations with clients in VERY different industries and at VERY different companies that all said almost the same thing:

It is really really hard to do something new or different in a big company. It’s also really important to try but I am frustrated and exhausted and I’m starting to wonder it’s worth it. Or if it’s even possible.

I know that it pains them to say that. It pains me to hear it.

Making innovation happen in large organizations is about more than putting in place processes, structures, and KPIs (all necessary, but not sufficient, for success).

It’s about leaders learning how to think, act, and react in ways that are different from what is usually required when managing the existing business.

It requires a level of optimism, resilience, and belief in purpose that can be difficult for people to sustain in the face of ever more constrained resources, shorter timelines, and waning organizational patience.

So, when our belief wavers we do the only things we can: we share our experiences with others in similar situations, laugh about the nonsense, and take a deep breath or a small rest before we continue.

After all, the next room was filled with eighty hanging swinging pendulums that we have to dodge to continue through the exhibit.

A Career in Innovation — Part 1: The Experience

A Career in Innovation — Part 1: The Experience

Have you ever had that eery feeling of some secret you’ve been keeping being subtly exposed by someone or something that has absolutely no way of knowing it? Have you ever had a conversation with someone, or read something, or seen something, and thought to yourself, “How do they know?”

I had that feeling a few months ago at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston.

And it made me laugh. Mostly so I wouldn’t cry.

A Bit of Background

The exhibit William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects is “the first comprehensive American exhibition of performative objects, video installations, and interactive sculptures of the internationally celebrated choreographer William Forsythe.”

For the uninitiated (me), William Forsythe is a famous choreographer who “redefine(d) classical ballet” through his unique approach to “choreography, staging, lighting, and dance analysis.” Since the early 1990s, he’s also been developing art installations that are designed to “stimulate movement from visitors.”

This all sounds well and good and like a fun exhibit, and I needed to find something to do with my dad while he was in town, so off we went!

Welcome to the Jungle

Room full of hanging rings and people trying to use them to go from one side to the other

William Forsythe, The Fact of The Matter, 2009

The second piece in the exhibit is Forsythe’s The Fact of the Matter — essentially a large room with hundreds of rings suspended from the ceiling by straps of various lengths, and accompanied by instructions to move from one end to the other using only the rings. This is the piece’s first showing in the US for (obvious) liability reasons.

Dad and I, overly confident in our physical fitness, decided that it would be a good idea to give it a try, and joined the line that circled the room (only 10 people were allowed on the piece at a time).

That’s when the feeling that I have experienced this before started to creep in.

45 minutes later, having made it only one-third of the way through the installation and narrowly avoiding breaking or spraining or pulling something on at least eight different occasions, I stepped out and collapsed against the wall.

After an embarrassing amount of recovery time, I walked to the next installation and realized why the whole experience felt so familiar.

It was the perfect encapsulation of a career in corporate innovation.

The Corporate Innovator’s experience in 45 minutes

  1. The initial rush of excitement because “Yea! We’re going to do something fun and new!”
  2. The gradual acceptance that you’re going to have to wait to get started because there are rules and we need to be safe and not take any risks
  3. The eager learning as you patiently wait, watch others give it a try, and search the internet for tips on how to succeed
  4. The rising confidence that, by watching and studying, you have learned enough to do better than the people currently trying
  5. The helpful arrogance you display as you shout advice and guidance to people doing the work
  6. The rush of adrenaline you feel when it is finally your turn
  7. The certainty and strength you feel as you start, grabbing a ring in each hand and pulling yourself off the ground
  8. The terror of placing your foot in the first ring and feeling it shoot out in a direction that it definitely should not go and realizing that this is SO MUCH HARDER than you thought it would be
  9. The quiet resilience that takes root as you get your first foot back under control, your second foot in its ring, and realize that you can’t bail now because you haven’t gotten anywhere and all the people you gave advice to are standing along a different wall watching you (and probably feeling quite smug, if we’re going to be honest)
  10. The sense of doom when you realize that, now that you have all your limbs under control, you need to move a foot out of its current ring and into another one
  11. Repeat steps 8 through 10 until you are so physically and emotionally exhausted that you wonder what you were ever thinking, that you now have pain in muscles you didn’t even know you had, and that you’re definitely having wine with dinner tonight.
  12. The relief of returning to solid ground and feeling supported as you lean against a wall, then watching all those young whipper-snappers who shouted advice at you and who are now hanging on to rings and straps for dear life
  13. The hard soul-searching as you choose whether or not to do it all over again

What Forsythe (apparently) knows about corporate innovation that most don’t

  1. You don’t know anything until you do something: I saw lots of ways to get from one end to the other and thought I had a brilliant plan. But the only thing I knew for sure after I grasped the first ring was that I needed to stay as close to the ground as possible.
  2. Doing something is much harder than watching someone else do it: No matter how much you study or observe others, no matter how “good” your advice may seem, no matter how much experience you have in something like this (I spent my childhood playing on a jungle gym!), doing something is always, always harder than watching and critiquing others.
  3. There is no one “best” way, just the way that works for you: I spent 30 minutes watching people move from ring to ring. Some people (mostly kids) went fast and made it look effortless, some people took a more measured approach, and some (mostly older folks) kept their feet on the ground and only moved their hands from ring to ring. Everyone approached the task differently, taking into account their abilities and working to achieve their own definitions of success.
  4. The hardest part is moving forward: Every time I stabilized myself, I felt a warm rush of relief. “I’ve got this,” I would think to myself. And then I would realize that I had a choice — I could stand still and be safe OR I could move my foot to another ring, fundamentally de-stabilizing myself and sending limbs flying everywhere, but also getting closer to my goal.
  5. You only fail when you start blaming: Yes, I bailed well short of my goal. I didn’t have the upper body strength to keep going. But did I fail? Nope. I learned that I need to work harder to strengthen my arms, shoulders, and core. Did other people bail before they got to the end? Yep. Did some of them fail? Yes they did. They blamed the exhibit (“of course I couldn’t make it to the end, it was designed by a professional choreographer, only professional dancers can do it”), they blamed things they couldn’t control (“I’m too old for this”), and they blamed other people (“that kid was always in my way!”). They didn’t celebrate their courage to start or recognize what they learned. They just moved on from that “stupid installation” that will never work.

The next room

Just when I thought Forsythe might have just gotten lucky with his “Experience a Career in Corporate Innovation” installation, I walked into the next room. Filled with chalkboards, he had somehow captured the progression of meetings corporate innovators endure as they present to ever higher levels of management…

That story coming soon.

3 Alternative Careers for Frustrated Intrapreneurs

3 Alternative Careers for Frustrated Intrapreneurs

I’ve had more than one conversation recently in which an Intrapreneur will ask me, with downcast eyes and voice barely above a whisper, “Has my career been a lie? Is making innovation happen in a big company actually impossible?”

Intrapreneurs have the hardest jobs in the world so it’s understandable that they often get frustrated and sometimes burned out. After all, they face a massive system of hundreds (thousands?) of people who are not only motivated to defend and extend the status quo but who are rewarded for doing so.

While we can’t give up (never give up!), sometimes we need a break. But what is an Intrapreneur to do when they need a break from corporate innovation?

Happily there are lots of options because Intrapreneurs have many valuable yet rare skills than can easily be applied in other roles. Let’s take a look at just a few alternative professions that draw on an Intrapreneur’s unique skillset.

Intrapreneur Skill #1: Making things happen with very few resources

Remember that time you submitted a budget request for $3M to support a team of 5 working to test 3 new businesses that, if launched, would generate $450M annual revenue? Remember when you actually received $1.5M for a team of 3 to test 6 new businesses that, when launched, would generate $1B in new revenue? Remember when you come this close to actually nailing that crazy goal?

You could be a public school teacher

According to to the OECD, from 2010–2014 education spending per student increased 5% across its 35 member companies. In the US, spending per student decreased 4% over the same time frame thanks to a 3% decrease in spending and a 1% increase in student population. Yes, public school teachers are being asked to teach more with fewer resources.

To add insult to injury, according to a survey by Scholastic, teachers spend $530, on average, out of their own pockets and teachers in high poverty schools spend, on average, $750 out of their own pockets. Now consider that, according to another OECD report, on average, US teachers are paid “less than 60 percent of the salaries of similarly educated professionals…the lowest relative earnings across all OECD countries with data.”

Intrapreneur Skill #2: Maintaining enthusiasm despite being wrong

Remember that time that you ran an experiment to test your customers’ willingness to pay only to find out that it was half of what you needed to be? Then remember how you spun that result into a positive thing because it allowed you to quickly kill the project and start investing in the next one?

You could be a meteorologist.

Have you ever seen a depressed meteorologist? Nope, neither have I. Even though they’re wrong all the time (actually, they are, on average, wrong only 20% of the time according to this Kansas City meteorologist who has absolutely no reason to doctor the data), they get on TV multiple times a day to predict the 1-day, 5-day, 7-day, and even 10-day forecasts.

They spend hours cranking through computer models to tell us at 6am that there’s a 20% chance of rain today. Armed with this information, we leave home without our umbrellas only to get drenched in something that can only be described as a monsoon during our commutes home. Then they pop back up at 11pm happy about the day’s “beneficial rain” and peppily predicting sun tomorrow.

Intrapreneur Skill #3: Optimism in the face of incredible odds

Remember that time you were super excited to be asked to join a new team at your company that would focus in creating new business models and launching new businesses? Remember how excited you were to present your first batch of ideas to management? Remember how you were only momentarily bummed when all your ideas were crushed because they didn’t support the current business or fit the current business model? Remember coming in the next day full of energy and optimism that you’ll get ’em next time?

You could be a lifelong Cleveland Browns’ fan.

OK, I know that being a Browns’ fan isn’t a profession (it’s an identity) but Browns fans are the world’s best example of this trait. Not only did the Browns lose Every Single Game during the 2017 season, they have put together the worst 3 season record in NFL history, “including all existing franchises from 1920 until now. Of the 32 existing franchises, in every season they have played in every city they have played in, with every wacky nickname attached, no one has had a worse three-season run.” Yet, despite being the worst team in history, Browns fans still show up to games, even when the bitter winter wind whips off Lake Erie and swirls around the stadium. They’re so steadfast that The New York Times actually wrote an article about them and their unwavering belief that “there’s always next year.”

There you go, dear Intrapreneurs, just a few of the thrilling careers where you can apply the skills you’ve honed fighting the good fight in corporate America.

As for me, I’m going to stick with Intrapreneurship because dealing with kids all day is my version of hell, I’m pretty sure meteorology requires math, and my heart is still broken for the 1997 Cleveland Indians so I can’t take on any more Cleveland sports pain. More importantly, I still think Intrapreneurship is a hell of a lot of fun. Most of the time.