Create Three Distinct Career Paths for Innovators

Hedgehog Innovation Teams

Create Three Distinct Career Paths for Innovators

Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Ron Pierantozzi

kHUB post date: February 11, 2022
Read time: 4 minutes

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Big companies are much better at incremental innovation than they are at radical innovation. That’s as true now as it was 20 years ago, despite countless programs aimed at strengthening innovation capabilities. To understand why, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studied 21 large companies’ efforts to build a capability for breakthrough innovations over several years. They found that even though companies pay lip service to innovation, most fail to provide the formal structure and support that programs need to succeed, such as an autonomous organization, processes tailored for highly uncertain work, and welldesigned metrics.

What’s more, the research reveals that companies fundamentally mismanage their innovation talent. Typically, large companies rotate high-potential managers in and out of the innovation leadership role on a regular basis. That may give the rising stars broad experience, but it deprives the company of any real innovation expertise at a senior level. Even more damaging, companies don’t provide meaningful growth opportunities for their innovation professionals. So although there are plenty of great jobs in innovation, there are no careers. One member of an innovation hub in a large consumer products company explains, “I could help launch $4, $5, $6 billion businesses over the next five years, and I won’t get promoted into leadership for this company.”

To remedy that problem, companies must first understand that breakthrough innovation consists of three phases:

  • Discovery: Creating or identifying highimpact market opportunities.
  • Incubation: Experimenting with technology and business concepts to design a viable model for a new business.
  • Acceleration: Developing a business until it can stand on its own.

Consider the unique competencies each phase requires. During discovery, employees often do bench science or technological experimentation as they think about how an innovation might satisfy a marketplace need.

During incubation, employees experiment recursively with technology and market opportunities and try to anticipate the impact the breakthrough business may have on the company’s strategy. During acceleration, established-business capabilities such as scaling up processes, imposing discipline, and specialization are needed. Each phase lends itself to distinct career paths, as well. The bench scientist, for instance, may eventually want to be involved in policy discussions about emerging technologies and how they may influence the company’s future. The incubator may want to pursue a technical path—managing larger, longer-term projects—or to manage a portfolio of emerging businesses. And the accelerating manager may want to stay with the business as it grows, take on a leadership role in a functional specialty, or move into other general-management roles in the corporation.

Discovery, Incubation, Acceleration

The mission: Create and identify opportunities in the marketplace. Explore fit between technological capabilities and marketplace needs.

Typical Activities bench science, feasibility studies, opportunity generation

Entry-level Skills

  • scientific and technical acumen
  • systems thinking
  • ability to make links between science and market possibilities
  • network development skills
  • comfortable managing ambiguity
  • ability to handle rejection

Midlevel Skills Entry-level skills, plus the ability to

  • make connections across opportunities
  • broaden opportunities through imaginative thinking combined with deep knowledge of emerging product market domains
  • coach teams to think strategically
  • evaluate opportunities

Senior-level Skills Entry- and midlevel skills, plus the ability to

  • lead conversations about strategic intent
  • collaborate with technical leaders outside the company
  • manage budgets and finances
  • manage a portfolio
  • conduct policy-setting conversations with governmental and other constituents

The mission: Experiment in order to create a new business that delivers breakthrough value to customers and to the firm.

Typical Activities experiment, develop technology toward a specific application, work with potential customers, analyze the economics of the business.

Entry-level Skills

  • ability to create a new business
  • comfortable managing ambiguity
  • ability to assimilate new information and change direction
  • resource identification
  • management of organizational expectations

Midlevel Skills Entry-level skills, plus

  • experience managing smaller projects
  • interpersonal coaching skills

Senior-level Skills Entry- and midlevel skills, plus the ability to

  • assess the relative economic, market, and strategic promise of opportunities
  • manage cross-portfolio synergies and dissonance
  • manage in the context of the larger organization’s economic and competitive situation

The mission: Nurture the business until it can stand on its own.

Typical Activities invest in infrastructure, develop repeatable business processes, develop managerial talent, manage relationship with mainstream organization

Entry-level Skills

  • traditional functional skills
  • ability to be both agile and disciplined
  • ability to operate on a cross-functional team

Midlevel Skills Entry-level skills, plus

  • traditional leadership skills for a specific function (analytical, sales oversight, decision making, strategic)

Senior-level Skills Entry- and midlevel skills, plus the ability to

  • act as general manager for a high-growth business

Rather than develop those paths, however, many firms assume that an individual will be promoted along with a project as it grows from discovery through to acceleration. In reality, individuals with that breadth of skill sets are extremely rare. In other words, companies have essentially been setting their innovators up to fail. Imagine how much a company might improve its innovation if it allowed workers who excelled in, say, the discovery phase to focus on emerging innovation opportunities rather than forcing them to acquire the skills needed for incubation or acceleration. The accompanying exhibit can serve as a guide for executives who are ready to build career paths for their company’s innovators—and to reap the rewards of a sustainable innovation function.

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