Leading Innovation: The Hiring Decision

One of the key questions one needs to resolve at the commencement of an innovation programme is what sort of innovator you should hire to lead everything.

The leadership hiring decision is a very important one, because no matter whether you’re building a central innovation team or one which is distributed and responsible for creating an innovation culture, what happens next will be very dependent on the mentality the leader brings to the table.

One possibility is to hire an entrepreneur. Such individuals have usually proved they are able to make small ventures successful. They know how to run an enterprise on a shoestring and are able to match limited resources to big problems. Entrepreneurs have usually proved they can take an idea and turn it into something valuable.

Alternatively, is it better to hire someone with significant experience managing portfolios of activity, and who know just how to make decisions to start things as well as how to stop them. Now, such an individual probably doesn’t have a great deal of experience in the low down day to day running of projects, but they certainly are able to make investment decisions.

Given the choice, most stakeholders will hire the former. It seems a sensible choice to make: why not choose someone who has at least proved that when they focus on something, they’ll get it to work?

Regrettably, the obvious choice is not always the best one.

Entrepreneurial innovation leaders are highly motivated to make their personal choice projects successful no matter what it takes. This, after all, is a proven formula for them. They are experienced in taking good ideas and driving through to value, often because of personal heroics. It is not unusual that their whole careers have been based on a few lucky successes.

Individual heroics are one thing, but the fact of the matter is most innovation projects fail for one reason or other. This happens despite the amount of effort applied. Entrepreneurs accept this intuitively, so they cancel a projects which don’t seem to be progressing well. They live in the hope that their next project will be a hit.

For innovation teams in larger organisations, however, this is a very bad strategy. Innovation leaders usually last about 18 months before their stakeholders get sick of waiting for results. Doing things in the sequential order of the entrepreneur means that that time runs out way before there are decent result. The implication is that hiring an investor is usually sensible.

Investors have an intuitive understanding of the fact that the real name of the game in innovation is avoiding concentrations of risk to get to a predictable return. Usually, that means a light touch on a large number of simultaneous innovations, rather than a deep concentration on a few.