The innovator’s choice?

In a previous post I described the innovator’s needs as a rather abstract concept: he needs access to skills, assets, and resources. But how can the innovator actually fulfil them? What choices does he have? Does he have a choice at all?

Well, rather than having a clear choice between several options, I think that an innovator can position himself somewhere along a spectrum. And that spectrum essentially depends upon the personal attitude of the innovator, more specifically on three characteristics: his readiness to accept risk, his need for power and control, and his craving for recognition.

  • On one extreme end of that spectrum, an innovator might be willing to sacrifice control and recognition in order to minimise personal risk. In that case, the innovator will be comfortable as an employee of an organisation (for example a company or a research lab) that provides the necessary skills, assets, and resources, allowing him to focus on his innovative idea.
  • On the other end, personal control and recognition play a significant role in the personal ambition of the innovator. If he is furthermore willing to accept personal risk, he will likely be comfortable to run his own business and seek access to the necessary skills, assets, and resources directly in the market place.

In real life, this is neither a continuous spectrum, nor does it easily allow for frequent repositioning. But for the sake of the argument it is useful to think about it as a tension field between the counteracting desires and motivations of the innovator. This spectrum depicts the essence of the service that organisations provide to the innovator they employ: they provide the immediate environment for the innovator to pursue his idea; they ensure that resources, assets, and skills are available.

That service is important, as it gives certainty, reassurance, and security to the innovator, thus allowing him to focus on developing and maturing his idea. However, that arrangement comes at a price: the organisation also sets the requirements for innovation, it defines the scope the innovator should work on. That is a fundamental limitation of the innovator’s manoeuvring space.

Furthermore, the innovator does not have control over the final application of his idea, as that is again subject to the organisation’s needs and interests. And finally, he will most likely not get the full recognition for his idea, as that will be attributed to the organisation, not the individual. If these downsides are acceptable to the innovator, he will be comfortable as an employee.

However, if he cannot put his personal ambition last, he might prefer to be independent and run his own business to pursue his idea. That is the opposite end of the spectrum, where the innovator has far more options for every single decision than he could ever have as an employee of an organisation. Yet, being on his own, he is fully exposed to the head winds of the unfiltered reality of the market place. And that can be overwhelming, exceeding his own skills and resourcefulness.

Once again, is there a choice? To my mind, the innovator must find his individual way to balance his personal interests and ambitions. It is important to understand the role that organisations like companies or research labs play in that delicate balancing exercise: they shield him against direct exposure to the market place. And that service can be seen from two different angles. It could be seen as protection that allows the innovator to focus on his strengths. It might as well be considered as suffocating the initiative of an innovator, in case his idea does not match the requirements and needs defined by the organisation, or if the organisation is not strong enough to provide all the resources, skills, or assets necessary to successfully implement the innovation. The innovator’s art will be to find the solution that offers maximum protection with a minimum of suffocation.

This reading of the role that organisations in innovation leaves my with two topics I’ll have to address at same stage: entrepreneurship on one hand and disruptive innovation on the other.

  • If an innovator feels strongly about his idea, and his current employer does not support it, he might actually leave that company and pursue his idea on his own. To succeed “out in the wild“, without the protective shield that an organisation could offer, requires the assertiveness and perseverance, the enterprising character of a true entrepreneur.
  • Usually, an organisation feels pretty strong about its business model, and it will seek to preserve it. Therefore, the innovation the organisation seeks and is willing to support is defined within the context of that specific business model. It appears compelling that innovators working in this organisation will not challenge the current business model. And that yields a straightforward explanation why game changing, disruptive innovations are usually not developed by the top dog, but by the challenger.

I cannot help but think that both topics are intimately linked. Happy to hear your views.

4 thoughts on “The innovator’s choice?

  1. Yes, it is the synergy between an organization’s paradigm of business strategy and the personal balance (as you so very well describe) of the innovator can result into a win-win situation for both.

    1. Thank you for that important insight and clarification. I agree, the synergy between the objectives of the organisation and of the innovator is a powerful source of progress. Only if the objectives differ, problems arise: either the organisation does not get what it pays for or the innovator cannot pursue his idea. Or, and let’s not forget that wider context, society at large doesn’t get the best out of its innovation system.
      I’ll seek to express those ideas more clearly in a future post.

      1. Thank you for your detailed response. Perhaps, like many other things on our planet, innovations also follow the rule of the survival of the fittest!

        Look forward to your excellent posts.

      2. Thanks once again for the inspiration. You are raising very good questions: What is the fitness of an innovation? How does competition among innovations work? And to what extent is innovation a life-like, an organic process? Answers aren’t easy, and that’s what I like. More to think about, more to learn, more to share.

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