Don't Isolate the Innovators

A common innovation “best practice” is to identify innovators within an organization and somehow move them out of the mainstream organization to a protected business unit.  Proponents of this practice argue that innovators are a rare breed of individual and in order for innovation to flourish these innovators need a protected environment in which to perform their magic.

The Manhattan project scientists who developed the Atomic bomb were first isolated beneath a squash court at the University of Chicago and later relocated to Los Alamos, NV.  To create the first personal computer, the IBM development team worked in a Boca Raton, FL facility far away from IBM headquarters in Armonk, NY.  While these successes might lead you to believe that this is a great innovation strategy, it has two serious flaws.

The first problem is that it presumes innovation skills are rare and resident in only a small number of individuals.  .  On the contrary, most people have the ability to come up with an innovation.. After all, isn’t innovation  simply coming up with new ideas?  Type “innovation” into and you will find the following definition:

In-no-va-tion [in-uh-vey-shuhn]


1.    Something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.

2.    The act of innovating; introduction of new things or methods

Virtually everyone has the ability to come up with an idea for something new or different and organizations should be encouraging all of their employees to see themselves as innovative.  Identifying certain people as innovators sends a clear message to everyone else that the company does not consider them to be able to innovate.

The second problem of the isolation approach is keeping innovators away from clients and customers.  A primary goal of most companies is to deliver value to their clients and customers.  The best innovations come from people closest to those clients or customers.  The closer you are to customers, the better understanding you have of their problems and the more likely you are to come up with an idea to deliver more value to them.  If you isolate your innovators, you distance them from the customers you are trying to innovate for.

At PwC we take both approaches to innovation.  We have a number of innovation groups, mostly focused on solving large difficult problems which require investments, special skills and patience.  We also encourage all of our staff to come to work every day asking themselves the simple question, “What can I do today which will deliver more value to our clients?”  We expect everyone to be an innovator.


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3 Responses to Don't Isolate the Innovators

  1. Christopher L Wasden says:

    We have been working with several clients who apply these principles in their innovation activities. One is a high growth and very successful software company and another is a large healthcare provider.

    They create structures that enable any one in the organization to come up with an idea for a new innovation, self-organize a team to create a prototype or proof of concept, obtain some resources ($25-250K) to develop it over a 3 to 9 month time frame. These innovative ideas that need funding are reviewed by a cross-disciplinary innovation committee. This committee does not include their boss, and in fact, one of the primary roles of the innovation committee, and mentors associated with it, is to “protect you from your boss.” This protection from your boss is critical to success since you already have job (and a boss), you are keeping your job while you are at the same time doing your new innovative work, you are not sequestered away from the rest of the organization just because you are being innovative; you still have daily roles, responsibilities, and expectations with your “real job.” But you are driven by your passion to innovate to find free time to do your innovative work “on the side” in order to meet
    your innovation milestones established with the innovation committee.

    If your innovation succeeds, you have the possibility of either transitioning from your current job to a new one that will be dedicated to moving the innovation forward, or you may just do a hand off of your innovation to some one else to take it from discovery to incubation and launch.

    The need to keep your day job while you innovate is critical for several reasons. First, much of your insight for innovation comes from your daily exposure to the problem that your innovation addresses, and your day job becomes a laboratory for experimentation. The second reason, is that you are more likely to fail than succeed with your innovative idea. That is just the nature of innovation. Therefore, if your innovation doesn’t work out, you don’t have to go through a disruptive process of finding a new job (either internal or external) if your innovation doesn’t work out. It therefore prepares you to try again with future modifications to your idea or with new ideas for innovations.

    I refer to the type of discipline applied to innovation as “market discipline” because you are bringing the same type of discipline that exists in the external market to realize fast failure in innovation within your organization. By applying this type of market discipline within their organizations, these clients are able to tap into the passionate innovative energies among the masses within their organization, get them to failure or success points faster on limited capital budgets, and advance new innovations that a traditional R&D function would never come up with.

  2. Thomas Yip says:

    I believe innovators NEED the human interaction in order for them to continue innovating. Human learn by observing, experiencing, and referencing, then innovation follows when we find a new way to do something better and more efficient.

    Taking the Manhattan Project and IBM examples, one can also argue that they were isolated simply because of the risk of information leaking into the open society. Can you imagine if they had to lock innovators in an undisclosed location for months in order to keep a secret back in the days, what needs to be done in our society filled with communications technologies? Ha!

  3. Dan Keldsen says:

    There are the fabled “lone geniuses” and then there are the rest of us – who I hope are collaborative innovators. Creating an area or ripe “medium” for the growth and exploration of innovation, such as rubbing up the “innovators” with (gasp!) honest to god customers (who might also have great ideas as it turns out), is clearly the best way to increase the odds that useful problems and opportunities will be generated.

    Even Apple, which is of course famous for innovations such as the iPod, commercializing the GUI, etc., while they are hyper-secretive about their current developments, they still work in focused TEAMS for the most part.

    You bring up an interesting point – by labeling only certain people as creative or innovative, that does tend to shut down participation by others.

    I interview Michael Michalko of ThinkerToys fame, and we’d discussed how long-term experiment was run to see how many kids of 5 years old (roughly) believed themselves to be creative – roughly 98% of them said yes. 15 years later, they asked the same kids the same question. Completely reversed – only 2% felt they were creative.

    Most corporate environments do even less to generate curiousity and creativity than the typical childhood education experience.

    Is it any wonder that innovation/creativity is in such short supply in most organizations? It’s not only not their job, but they believe they’re not capable of it either.

    The innovation bar isn’t set too high – it’s not even recognized, although there are some signs that this is beginning to change.

    If nothing else, the economy of today is forcing people to really think about whether what they did yesterday or are doing today will even be relevant tomorrow.

    Let’s hope we can kickstart the drive to ACT and not just acknowledge the problem.

    Have been working with people and companies in this realm for several years, and the groundswell is definitely building. But it’s a gradual movement, for sure.

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