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What Are You Doing To Hire Idea People? Probably Nothing!
Posted By Dr. John Sullivan On July 15, 2013 @ 6:23 am In Advice and How-Tos | 2 Comments
Innovation = Ideas + Collaboration + Execution
As a result of the dramatic business successes of firms like Google , Apple,  and Facebook, almost everyone has become aware of the tremendous economic value that comes from continuous corporate innovation. But unfortunately executives at most firms have failed to realize that they can dramatically increase their corporate innovation rate by simply focusing on hiring and retaining more “idea people.”
Increasing corporate innovation starts with fully understanding that there are three steps or phases in the innovation process. These three steps include:
Step 1 – Idea generation; innovation starts with an idea from an employee.
Step 2 – Collaboration; the raw idea is shared, vetted, and improved and a shared ownership is developed through collaboration with other employees.
Step 3 – Execution; the improved idea is then turned into an actual product, service, or process using the tools of the corporate execution process.
Because idea generation is required to begin the entire innovation process, it is the most important step of the three. However, even though it is the catalyst for the entire innovation process, it is the least studied and the poorest resourced of the three steps.
The remaining two steps are better understood and developed. We know that firms can successfully improve step 2, collaboration by increasing the number of physical “serendipitous interactions” between employees, usually as a result of enhancing office design and the type of food and fun features that are common at Google and Facebook. Step 3, execution, while complex, may be the easiest step because almost all corporations are full of “process people” who excel at execution.
Obviously producing innovative products would be a lot easier if a single employee could successfully perform all three steps in the innovation process by themselves. But it turns out that some idea people are lousy at execution (and vice versa), while other idea people have many pie-in-the-sky ideas that need to be tempered through collaboration with others.
Unfortunately, some executives have yet to realize that each innovation step involves completely separate and distinct skills that are rarely shared by a single individual. As a result, you need specialists in each step. And because the first step is required before the other two can even begin, let’s now shift our focus toward “idea generation” and how talent management can increase the number of idea-generating employees.
There are few exceptions to the rule that “ideas come from people.” Many employees come up with an occasional idea but most firms have a small cadre of employees who seem to almost continually generate quality ideas (take a minute and I’ll bet you can name several in your own business unit). Historically these continuous idea generators were known as “idea men” (thankfully the name has evolved into “idea people”) or even “idea monkeys” but I prefer to call these employees “idea generators.” These “idea generators” are an elite group which might comprise only 10 percent of your workforce.
There is little formal corporate research on why certain employees generate so many ideas but one of the primary causes is that these people simply have a “the glass is half full” perspective, which causes them to see the need and the possibility of dramatic improvement in almost everything. They see issues with most existing efforts and they also view even the most successful products and processes as items that will soon become obsolete. They also see new opportunities everywhere, and they somehow find the time to think and reflect about these new possibilities. They differ significantly from the more common quality control people in that they generate ideas with the goal of double-digit change.
Although many employees occasionally generate ideas, these individuals do it continuously without being asked. Although these idea generators may literally be the highest “value added” employees, most organizations have no formal process for hiring new ones or for identifying and nurturing the ones that your firm already has.
Obviously corporations need a mix of employees who generate ideas, vet and improve ideas, and who can execute ideas. However, among the three types of employees, the greatest shortage, as well as the highest value comes from increasing the number of “idea generators.” The best way to increase the number of idea generators quickly is by hiring them into positions where ideas are needed most. Because I have not encountered anyone else in talent management who focuses on recruiting these “idea generators,” I will provide you with some hiring tips based on my own experience and research.
Once you hire an idea generator, you need to immediately begin “reinforcing the sale” by highlighting the different ways that they can have their ideas “listened to” during the onboarding process.
Immediately assigning them a mentor employee who has been successful at idea generation is also generally a wise move. Idea generators should be prioritized for retention purposes. Because retention problems can be identified and resolved by their manager, their immediate manager needs to be provided with a retention toolkit. This toolkit should cover the best practices and approaches that their manager can use to identify the new hire’s key motivators/turnoffs and how to “best manage” idea generators. Individual managers should be encouraged to hold one-on-one feedback meetings with them at least every six months. These meetings should include important topics like: Why do you stay?, What frustrates you and might cause you to consider leaving?, and “Where would they like to be in one and two years?”
You can also increase retention rates by formally measuring, recognizing, and rewarding successful idea generation. However, be aware that some idea generators will prefer not to be promoted into managerial positions, while others will have little interest in being involved in the execution step of the innovation process.
Smart executives will also develop processes for “pulling” more ideas out of every employee but especially idea generators. Google and Facebook are the benchmark firms when it comes to successfully “pulling ideas” out of their employees. Some of their approaches that can be borrowed include providing idea generators: with free time (i.e. 20 percent time), with decompression chambers, with quiet spaces to reflect, by holding Hackathons, with group brainstorming sessions, and by providing numerous whiteboards and wikis for posting and sharing new ideas.
Some firms increase the number of ideas by sanctioning “no people” — employees who vocally and publicly criticize and discourage all new ideas. Creating a corporate-wide list of your idea-generator employees can make it easier for central HR to ensure that they are adequately moved, trained, rewarded, and recognized.
Generating ideas that successfully make it through the final two steps to become workable innovations also need to be an important criterion in performance metrics, performance appraisal, bonus formulas, and promotion criteria for all managers and employees. However, none of these idea pulling features will work unless the corporate culture visibly celebrates and takes quick action on new ideas. Some might argue that all of these efforts might result in having “too many ideas,” but if your firm has an innovation culture or it operates in a VUCA  environment, that would be a nice problem to have.
Unless you want different parts of the organization to move at different speeds and to innovate at different rates, you must have idea generators in every business function and not just in product development. Research at Google has also shown that the second step of the innovation process, collaboration, can be further enhanced if idea generators frequently interact not just with their own team members but also with many other diverse functions, including overhead functions.
Being innovative allows your firm to be first with new products and features, which generally carries the business benefits of free first-mover publicity, capturing significant market share and higher profit margins. However, this economic value can’t be obtained without a surplus of idea generators. Unfortunately, many leaders have put little thought and fewer resources into idea generation, even though they literally kick start the entire innovation process. Most corporate leaders don’t even know how many idea generators they have, no less who they are. Fortunately, once executives realize the critical role and the tremendous economic value added by these idea generators, there is little delay in their taking action to focus on these idea generators.
Once enlightened, they quickly call talent management and demand effective processes for recruiting, retaining, and nurturing these valuable corporate assets. Are you ready to respond to that call?
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 Google: http://search.ere.net/results/?cx=005106741110345417136%3Aav2yz16qqik&cof=FORID%3A9&ie=UTF-8&q=google&sa=Search+ERE
 Apple,: http://search.ere.net/results/?cx=005106741110345417136%3Aav2yz16qqik&cof=FORID%3A9&ie=UTF-8&q=apple&sa=Search+ERE
 VUCA: http://www.ere.net/2012/01/16/vuca-the-new-normal-for-talent-management-and-workforce-planning/
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