The One Innovation Question Leaders Need to Focus on Now

The One Innovation Question Leaders Need to Focus on Now. A person with large round glasses looks into the distance in front of a red and orange sunburst.

Health care executives face many tough questions today, but here’s one that may demand more attention: How do you identify and empower innovators in your organization?

The answer to this question can help determine how successful your innovation teams will be, according to three leaders in strategic management, innovation and organizational behavior from the Harvard Business School and McMaster University. After collectively spending more than 40 years studying this issue and reviewing data from more than 112,000 people in innovation roles in 84 countries, the researchers recently shared their findings in a recent Harvard Business Review report.

4 Innovation Styles Needed

The respondents told researchers what they like to do and what they do well when problem-solving as well as what they don’t like to do or don’t do well. What emerged from the data were individual preferences for one of four innovation styles. Each style maps to a distinct phase of the four-stage innovation process, with each having a role to play in your organization, the report notes.

All four styles are necessary for innovation, and understanding which employees fall into which style enables an organization to better identify where specific people are needed and who should work together to generate new breakthrough ideas. The researchers point out, however, that in their experience most organizations are lacking in one or more innovation styles, particularly generators.

1 | Generators

These individuals find new problems and ideate based on their own experiences.

Generators are rare and many organizations struggle to find people with this innovation style. Generators are great at finding unresolved gaps and inconsistencies, which can help to identify problems worth addressing as opportunities. However, they don’t necessarily articulate a clear understanding of the problem’s specifics or potential solutions.

Key Takeaway

Generators are perceptive of the world around them and initiate and generate opportunities for innovative solutions. A paucity of generators makes it more likely that organizations will miss opportunities to create valuable change. To innovate more effectively, organizations need to cultivate more generators who can find problems and create incentives for problem-finding.

2 | Conceptualizers

This group makes up the second rarest innovation style, making up only 19% of the sample.

Able to define problems, these people prefer to understand issues via abstract analysis rather than through direct experience. Like generators, conceptualizers enjoy ideating but would prefer to model the problem clearly — integrating the parts, relationships and insights — which then can be used as the basis for solutions.

Key Takeaway

More executives (25%) are conceptualizers. This likely reflects the specific cognitive demands for that role to strategically plan for more distant goals. Conceptualizers are most commonly found in roles where understanding the definition of the problem is vital, such as organizational development, strategic planning and market research. In analyzing the data, conceptualizers were rarest in operations (7%), technical support (11%) and project management (13%).

3 | Optimizers

These people evaluate ideas and suggest solutions.

They prefer to systematically examine all possible alternatives before implementing the best solution among the options. Optimizers usually are found in lower occupational levels (27% of the respondents were nonmanagers) and were less likely to be found in higher-level job roles like supervisor (23%), middle manager (22%) or executive (20%).

Key Takeaway

You’ll commonly find optimizers in roles where practical, precise and detailed plans, processes and solutions are required.

4 | Implementers

Enthusiastically (and at times impatiently) putting solutions to work, implementers are action-oriented.

They try new solutions before mentally testing them and then adjust based on outcomes of experiments. Implementers were the most common innovation style (41%) found among respondents.

Key Takeaway

Implementers comprise more than one-third of the executive manager respondents, but are also commonly found among nonmanagers, supervisors and middle managers.

Perhaps the most important factor in finding the right people to drive innovation, the researchers say, is a change in mindset. Rather than viewing problems as negative obstacles, leaders can help employees see problems as opportunities for innovation.

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