How to manage innovators

innovative-peopleAs innovation has taken an ever larger slice of the managerial narrative in recent years, there have been understandable attempts to better understand the process and how it can be successfully managed.

A lot of the time, these attempts have focused on organizational matters, such as creating the so called dual operating system that allows companies to both exploit existing strengths whilst exploring new ways, or the structural ways in which ideas can be generated and tested.

Alternatively, there have been a few attempts to understand the cultural aspects of innovation teams, and how they need protecting from the political and resource issues that can often strangle them and their ideas.

Managing innovative individuals

A recent study from Baylor University takes things to an even more granular level and looks specifically at how to manage innovative individuals, such as the scientists and engineers, within your organization.

“Our study suggests that leaders who understand how to manage their employees’ commitment to both their organizations and professions may be the most successful at motivating and retaining innovators,” the authors say.

The study focused specifically on those individuals in our organizations that are rated by their peers and managers as highly innovative.  These individuals were typically scientists and engineers working at a number of National Science Foundation research centers.  The researchers were especially examining the so called ‘dual allegiance’ of the innovators to both their professions and their organizations.

The study reveals that it’s quite possible for innovators to be committed to both their profession and their organization, providing that is they have a clear understanding of how they contribute to the success of their employer.

“The strongest positive relationship between innovation orientation and organizational commitment emerged among researchers who perceived high role significance and worked in highly productive organizations,” the authors say.

Interestingly, it seemed that this level of commitment was most evident amongst more senior employees.  As you go further down the ranks, it was more common to see either low commitment in both forms, or lopsided commitment to ones organization or profession.

Success breeds commitment

The second major finding from the study is that people tend to be more committed to organizations that are performing well, especially if they can clearly connect their own contributions to that success.  This should perhaps come as no surprise, as everyone likes to feel valued and researchers such as Teresa Amabile have highlighted the importance progress plays in our motivation at work.

It does nonetheless remind us of the important role managers play in communicating success, but also in communicating how people have contributed to it.

“When the organization successfully meets its goals and managers communicate effectively about individual contributions to that success, loyalty from highly innovative researchers may shift toward that organization, and potentially away from the profession,” the authors say.

Also unsurprisingly, when their employer was not performing so well, the innovators revealed higher commitment levels to their profession.  The authors do suggest ways in which managers can regain their allegiance however, even if things are not going well.

“As leaders in research organizations try to capitalize on the innovative tendencies of their employees, they may wish to design policies and procedures that support preferences for creative, out-of-the-box work styles,” they say.

Motivating innovators

These policies could include some of the following:

  • Protecting the innovative individuals from organizational bureaucracy
  • Reminding innovators that their personal goals and those of the organization are aligned
  • Celebrate even small wins

All of which is perhaps food for thought in managing the innovative types in your own organization.



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