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 dictionary.com and you will find the following definition:
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.