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ARTICLE JANUARY / FEBRUARY 2016
 
Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen about...
 

INNOVATION MANAGEMENT


Or: What makes a good innovation manager.
And: Experiences with (mis)hiring people for key positions



Truth: An innovation manager alone doesn't make or break the operation. And yet there are still (justified) expectations associated with a position of that kind. These expectations also lead medium-size businesses to reinforce their organizations in order to face the challenge. But when creating this type of key position, aren't there also key questions that need to be asked regarding its role in the company? That is the question you will be able to answer after reading this piece...


Is it actually clear what role the innovation manager at your company can and should play?

Results tend to fall short of expectations. The hoped-for move toward something new remains elusive and we are often left with the impression that everything is just more complicated and slower than anticipated: incomprehensible documentation, meetings about the future that most people would rather avoid, arguments between innovation management and the strategy department about direction, and disagreements about competencies with the research and development team. And all of that after everything seemed so logical and tangible in the lead-up. Finding the causes isn't difficult, and they put the responsible parties in the hot seat because the vital question is: Was everyone clear on what role was to be filled and what tasks were involved?

  • Should the primary job of an innovation manager be to "administer" the innovation process?
  • Should an innovation manager – as an officer – define the rules for new directions and ensure they are followed?
  • Do we even want someone to (finally) define areas of innovation that we then have to work on?
  • Is the goal that the innovation manager defines his/her "own" topics and thus acts more like an "innovation navigator"?
  • Do we assess the innovation manager based on his/her ability to be a proven "innovator" and a driver of the strategy – at least at the beginning?


Do traits count? Or is it (all) about skills?

The question of course arises: How well was the position filled? In many cases it is difficult to resist getting the impression that the wrong person (with enough time) was simply in the right place, and the decision-makers are patting themselves on the back after the fact because they quickly and pragmatically found a financially viable solution to the problem.

Despite being substantial in many cases, the opportunity costs are often overlooked when the role is not optimally filled. Indeed, one doesn't need to look at the most outlandish of scenarios to see that even traditional means of support, from HR or external recruiting agencies, can sometimes result in job descriptions that would give Superman a complex. Wanted:

  • Must be a visionary – but that's not all!
  • Must have charisma – of course!!
  • Must be a talented communicator!
  • Must think like an entrepreneur!
  • Must possess the ability to implement!
  • And must be able to act in a culturally inclusive manner!

And the list goes on… Traditional trait theory is alive and well, but what happens if "Super Innovation Man 2.0" isn't available? Should you wait patiently and hope for the "right one" to come along? Where is the proof that the traits you are looking for are even applicable in terms of the effectiveness of an innovation manager?

From our experience we have learned that, in the end, it is other, less spectacular personal ABILITIES and (acquired) SKILLS that make the real difference and lead to good results.


Is the key innovation position properly filled?

The concept: "tolerance for ambiguity". What we mean here is initially the skill and readiness to deal with uncertainty and even to encourage it. Ultimately, it is a BALANCING ACT between reducing complexity and creating too much complexity. It is a fine line between...

  • the risk of oversimplifying and then too quickly going headlong into new territory based on simplified criteria
  • and the knowledge that everything is intertwined, which in turn often leads to delayed decisions and a fall into the quagmire of innovation chaos

Creativity plays a role: This is not about your own ideas. An innovation manager is not MORE responsible for this than anyone else. The focus here is RESOURCEFULNESS and AGILITY. It's about seeing a path to the new where no path exists. In addition to the contextual element of innovation, there are also political, cultural and budgetary considerations, or as one CEO of a well-known medium-sized company once said: "Our innovation manager wouldn't be our innovation manager if he didn't possess the skill to make things possible, even if we weren't convinced initially and didn't even want to give the initiative a chance at all."

He needs to be unpretentious:
This is more than just an amicable sense of composure. If the innovation manager is speaking of HIS/HER successes, then he/she is still missing that last bit of MATURITY in the role. This also makes the job difficult even for former managers. The tasks of an innovation manager are much like CATALYSIS. It needs to be enough for him/her to (silently) recognize that without his cooperation the "reaction" that led to the new direction would not have taken place, even if credit for the success is given to someone else as well.

The concept: "finding and having access". This brings us to the subjects of CONFIDENCE and a NETWORK. How many ideas slumber within a company only because – for good reason – someone didn't want to share it with other people or with the company. Personal relationships are a great help here, but it is also important to be able to make new connections and to merge your resources, as it were. In order to cultivate ideas, an innovation manager needs to be well networked. It's good to have a network, and if you don't have one, it's good to know where you can borrow one or "piggy-back" on one by weaving connections within certain topics, technologies and markets.


Less "Superman" and more systematic thinking combined with professionalism and experience

Anyone who takes a closer look at innovation success and the effect of the innovation manager on this success will see things differently, namely:

  • in a much more relaxed way with regard to the "Superman" factor
  • less categorically in terms of the origin of the innovation manager, i.e., whether the position should be filled by someone internally or externally
  • less emotionally regarding the decision between the "fresh young" candidate or the experienced one
  • and less dogmatic on the question of "faith", whether this so-called high office is open to proven "conceptualists" (ideally from your own ranks) or also to other product line or sales managers.

SUBJECTIVE SIDE NOTES: Our experience tells us that old "warhorses" who have spent time on the frontlines can be a real blessing for innovation as soon as they know they no longer have to be the poster child for the cause, and once they begin using their reputation to gain access to the full breadth and depth of the organization and expand the scope of innovation with and for others. Having said that, when it comes to the care put into filling the position and the preparation for the overall effect of an innovation manager, this relaxed attitude tends to give way to high levels of tension.
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Indisputable: An innovation manager alone won't make or break the operation, but he/she can certainly make things "frosty" for a while!

The effects of any changes are often based on individuals, but in the end it is a combination of traits, and especially skills, combined with professionalism, the necessary tools and the joy of innovation. Experience as a source of efficiency should not go unmentioned: experience with the task at hand, experience with developing innovative business logic, experience with organizations and experience with different barriers to innovation (see the comprehensive pieces on barriers here: IMP ARTICLE JULY / AUGUST 2014 >). Yet effectiveness also depends on whether and how the filled position is defined, and how the innovation manager role is portrayed on an organizational level, including how much friction already exists in the role.

At the same time, the following still applies: "Whoever wants to regulate everything will also limit everything". With that in mind, organizational integration must also include organizational inventiveness. Meaning, the effectiveness of a role needs time and space to manifest itself. It is that fine line again between (preliminary) structuring and free development – but that is another story entirely…
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Anyone who has experienced (or suffered) giving the wrong person the responsibility for innovation in a company will understand why this topic was worth its own article. Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen, Spokesperson for IMP Management and Managing Partner at IMP Germany, asks the right questions in our latest piece on filling key positions in companies and explains what makes an effective innovation manager.



STEPHAN FRIEDRICH
VON DEN EICHEN



Spokesperson for Management and
Managing Partner at IMP Germany

 

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