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Managing innovative self-starters

Innovative companies know that innovation requires self-starters. They also know how difficult it is to manage these self-starters, as that can seem like herding cats. Many managers are afraid of chaos if they let their innovators explore. Can you have both? That is, encourage self-starters and remain in control over the innovation process? The answer is, yes!

Encouraging self-starters and remain in control?

Sounds too good to be true, correct? Who does not want to have lots of innovation initiatives sprouting throughout the organization, while keeping control of the innovation process and only fostering the best-of-the-best initiatives?

It is possible, as a recent Harvard Business Review article attests. The article is titled "Nimble Leadership, walking the line between creativity and chaos". It described the experiences of PARC and W.L. Gore and how "both companies encourage employees at all levels to take on leadership roles. They also let the actions of employees collectively determine which growth projects to fund. As a result, key decisions are aligned with strategic goals - and bureaucracy is kept at a minimum.

Another article in the same issue describes how a similar mechanism also applies to Artificial Intelligence (AI) innovation initiatives. It describes how to build an AI-powered organization. The biggest challenge to these initiatives is not technology but culture. To make the most of AI, the authors recommend that "leadership must convey the urgency of AI initiatives and their benefits for all; spend at least as much on adoption as on technology; organize AI work on the basis of the companies AI maturity, business complexity, and innovation pace; and invest in AI education for everyone." Even something as complex as AI, requires self-starters within the organization to get these initiatives off the ground.

Control by guiding the actions of your self-starters

The control you have over your innovation teams is different than you may expect. It is not the traditional, hierarchical top-down control, in which leadership tells these teams or individuals what to do.

Instead, the role you have as leadership is more similar to that as a coach.

When I coach entrepreneurs and innovators, I have limited, if any, control over the teams. I cannot tell them what they should do, as I am not their boss. What more, since I am not a specialist in their domain, they know better what to do than I do.

So how do I "control" them? It is easier than you think. I guide the teams and help them collect the data they need to make their decisions, point out possible biases in their data-collection efforts, and help them interpret the data they have collected. In other words, what I control, is that the teams work with the best possible information. And I trust that they will take the right decisions based on this information.


Interestingly, I never had to tell a team to stop. I am sure, they would not have listened anyway. What happens, is that bad and mediocre teams drop out rather quickly.

As coach, I help teams define the activities that need to be done and they set deadlines. The assigned tasks are all activities they have total control over - like doing a number of interviews, executing an experiment, writing a white-paper, reaching out to a number of clients, etc.

That means, that if they don't do the work, the team can be held accountable. Teams that consistently fail to do the work, typically self-select to stop. They realize that there is a lot amiss with their project, and their time and energy is better spent on more fruitful endeavors.

Implications for managers?

What are the implications, if you are a manager of innovation initiatives or a managing partner in a professional service firm?

Encourage self-starters. Let them start as many initiatives as possible. Having your ambitious talented employees investigate opportunities is a good thing. It costs you relatively little, it stimulates curiosity and provides rich opportunities for learning. All great things.

You must put clear gates around the topics that can be explored, provide a clear mission statement and strategic direction and tell that anything that helps the company to achieve these goals is worth looking into.

Set boundaries to how long someone can investigate a topic and what the outcome should be. For example, after putting in more than four hours, they should give a 5-10 minutes presentation about what they learned, at the monthly brown bag lunch.

For initiatives that seem to be worth further exploring, you will have to set up a process. This process should outline what a team has to explore further. What issues do they have to address and how far do you expect these projects to be de-risked before allowing a team to spend significant time on the project? What information should they collect before being eligible for further funding? This typically concerns information such as strategic fit, the problem the project would solve, the prevalence of this problem among current clients, etc..

In sum, you control the process, by making self-starters learn and share what they learned. As long as they collect the data you expect them to do, and as long as the data they collect shows it is worth continuing, they can keep going.

Make sure everyone is onboard

In practice, however, this is more challenging to implement. Not from the self-starters perspective. They do great when following this process of data gathering. With clear guidelines, actions to undertake, data to drive their decision making and planning, and not much bureaucracy, they will thrive.

It is senior management where things go wrong. Unfamiliar with this new kind of approach of learning and experimenting, they want to exert their control in the old fashioned way.

Keep gut-feelings at bay

In my experience, senior management loves using their gut feelings to guide their decision making. Perhaps to show they know it better, or because that gives a sense of control.

However, the result is more than frustrating for your innovation teams. Because it makes that their projects get derailed by the whims of senior management, who often don't take the time to carefully look at all the evidence collected. As you can imagine, not much good comes from that. Innovation projects are about new things. Hence, for these projects the gut feel of a senior manager and their experience with the past, are rarely good predictors for the future. Your talent self-starters will get discouraged because they are not listened to. And worse, they lose their confidence in your senior management.

So if you want to encourage self-starters and keep control over their actions.

  1. Set clear guidelines and restrictions as to what types of innovation efforts your firm wants and does not want to support and pursue.
  2. Spend a little on a lot of early-stage projects. Collecting data is typically inexpensive and with an army of exploring self-starters, you give your organization the best chance of finding the highest-value opportunities in the market.
  3. Put the bar high, on the data you expect teams to collect, so that only the best teams will remain. However, if you put the bar that high, you owe it to those teams that make it, to take a serious look at the data they have collected before making go / no-go decisions.
  4. Spend a lot on just a few projects. The initiatives and teams that make it through this process are good. It takes a lot of the dedication of a team to de-risk their project by collecting solid data. Listen to what the team has learned, and invest in them when the data shows that further support is worth the risk.



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