Balancing personnel needs in your innovation culture

By Ed Bernstein, President, Industrial Research Institute

Perhaps the most poorly understood aspect of innovation is the culture that enables (or inhibits) it within an organization. What element differentiates between companies who continually innovate and companies that simply cannot, despite their best efforts? Over the years, IRI’s practitioner-based journal, RTM, has printed several answers to this question and a review of this work approaches the best analysis.

While each organization expresses its own culture in a way that is unique to its people, size and circumstances, there are three steps that all companies can take to begin addressing how best to harness their culture’s strengths.

1) Determine Your Culture with Personality Profiling

Imagine an executive leadership team discussing a change in innovation strategy. Do you think such a conversation could be taken seriously without an understanding of a) the strengths and weaknesses of the people already employed, or b) the types of people needed to make a desired change? I doubt it, but that isn’t to say that all companies avoid doing this. Understanding your people is central to understanding your culture. If you are serious about accelerating your innovative practices, or in changing your organizational culture, you will first need to map out the personalities involved in your culture and how they work best.

Bob Rosenfeld of Idea Connecting Systems, Inc. identified the personality types that occupy the two poles of his innovator personality spectrum. He calls them “pinggers” and “ponggers;” those operating on the frontier generating ideas and those responding to ideas and building the networks and systems needed to implement them, respectively. In two other RTM articles, Greg Stevens of WinOvations™ Inc. and Kurt Swogger of the Cincinnati Consulting Consortium, call these two innovator types by the more obvious names of “starters” and “finishers.” The ratio of pinggers/starters to ponggers/finishers, they all argue, will largely determine whether your company leans towards new product development (NPD) or incremental innovations to existing businesses and products. Once you know your company’s ratio you may begin to…

2) Assess Your Company’s Needs

After coming to grips with how your people innovate best you may then begin assessing what you need to see happen in order to stay relevant in today’s market. Any organization wishing to stay relevant must constantly innovate and create new businesses and products. But existing products also need constant servicing and incremental updates. As a result, the needs of your organization are twofold: enough ideas in the pipeline to consistently create new products, and enough personnel to manage and maintain existing products and services. What most companies would like, but rarely have, are a healthy dose of both at minimal cost. They are usually forced to fluctuate between NPD and maintaining existing businesses. Decide which one you need more. After this assessment, you can then…

3) Fit Talent According to those Needs

What we all want is to have the best of both worlds; tons of new products and services coming from the pipeline and all the right personnel to develop and maintain those new businesses indefinitely. This is never the case, though. You have to choose. Does your organization need something new, or do you need to update your existing products to better satisfy the customers you already have? Recognize what factors may disrupt your products and services, or force you into early retirement, and then take this knowledge and review your organization’s strategic plan. Now ask yourself what you need more of: breakthrough innovation and new products or heightened focus on client retention and product refinement? You want both, but having both is rare in today’s world.

It is a mistake to think that if you want more NPD you need only hire more pinggers/starters. It is also a mistake to think if you want more polishing you should hire more ponggers/finishers. You will always need both. It’s the ratio of these two personality types, and the middle-ground individuals who bridge the gap, that is relevant. That ratio can always be adjusted to meet market demands. Shift your personnel ratios as needed and use that as a starting point for adjusting your culture as you move forward.

Acknowledging the difference in approach to innovation that different personality types bring is essential, according to Rosenfeld, Stevens and Swogger. Leaders who lean towards being a pingger themselves will struggle to understand and agree with ponggers during strategy meetings, and vice versa. This cross-fertilization of personality types, though, helps stimulate the best of both sides. True innovation leaders recognize every day that the needs of any organization are never to swing into an extreme end of an innovation culture and stay there. A balance must be struck between the two sides and the organization needs to swing back and forth across the full spectrum as its market demands change.

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