An Innovation Career

By Jim Euchner, VP, Global Innovation, Goodyear; Editor-in-Chief, Research-Technology Management (RTM)

“If you’re in permanent beta in your career, twenty years of experience actually is twenty years of experience because each year will be marked by new, enriching challenges and opportunities.”

―Reid Hoffman, The Startup of You

What does an innovation career look like? For many, it is part of a career in R&D. For others, it is just a stop on the way to a marketing or product development career. Sometimes it starts as a special project during a corporate initiative to jumpstart growth.

A career in innovation guarantees that you will always be doing something new, always learning, always confronting interesting challenges. Your career will be in “permanent beta.” Such a career may involve stints in innovation functions, assignments to special projects, and time spent with internal new ventures. It generally means you will work with interesting and diverse colleagues and you will spend a good deal of time on the edge. Innovation careers, however, are not well defined, and those embarking on them need to be willing to live with a large dose of ambiguity.

A typical career in innovation involves many fits and starts and sudden changes in direction as the business climate or business leadership changes. It often requires that you chart your own path. There is significantly more structural change in innovation functions, and individual careers often require a change in the company that you work for. Being in the right place at the right time with the right expertise can make all the difference, as trends in innovation and technology often drive the creation of innovation leadership roles. Right now, for example, there is a heightened focus on business model innovation, especially for digital transformation, and on people who can lead initiatives in big data, machine learning, and the Internet of Things.

Each of the articles in this issue sheds light on some aspect of a career in innovation or R&D management. In “The People Side of Breakthrough Innovation,” this issue’s Conversations interview, Gina O’Connor addresses the issue directly. Drawing on their research on breakthrough innovation at large companies, she and her colleagues at RPI’s Lally School of Management have identified nine distinct roles that are required for success in breakthrough innovation. Although one person may fill more than one of these roles, the research O’Connor and her team have done makes clear that all of the roles must be filled for sustained success. Gaps and a lack of clarity about the roles, their relation to the others, and what’s needed to succeed in a given role impede success. Besides allowing an organization to build a structure for innovation success, O’Connor says, defining these roles also creates a much clearer template for career progression for innovation professionals. It takes time to develop competence in these roles, so one implication of her work is the need to nurture innovation capability by nurturing talent, not simply rotating people into and out of the function.

In “Success Factors in R&D Leadership,” Lou Gritzo, Alan Fusfeld, and Dan Carpenter report on their study of R&D leaders and how their leadership skills differ from those of general managers. Drawing on extensive survey data from the Center for Creative Leadership, Gritzo, Fusfeld, and Carpenter identify areas where R&D leaders tend to excel—technical insight, awareness of global trends, and the ability to foster an innovative culture. They also highlight typical weaknesses, primarily in interpersonal management competencies like managing conflict and communicating with executive leadership. They argue that companies should spend more time addressing these gaps to help R&D leaders improve their effectiveness.

Other articles in the issue highlight the dynamic nature of careers in R&D and innovation. One big shift that has affected both innovation and R&D roles is open innovation. Success with open innovation has required notable changes not only in individual skill sets but also in organizational cultures. In “A Path to Internal Collaboration Through Internal Boundary Breaking,” Sung-Mahn Lee and Juneseuk Shin discuss the path toward a collaborative culture at LG Chem Research Park. Their case study is a frank and open review of the challenges and issues with organizational learning faced by companies seeking to open up their innovation practices. At LG Chem Research Park, a journey that began with a focus on open innovation has evolved into a new set of capabilities for internal collaboration. The paper highlights tools and practices that encourage and enable collaboration across internal boundaries.

In “Talk to Your Crowd: Principles for Effective Communication in Crowdsourcing,” Sebastian Schafer and his coauthors discuss a particular new capability required for success: engaging and inspiring the crowds that are often part of open innovation initiatives. These skills are new to many R&D professionals, and they are not natural extensions of other skills. Schafer and his coauthors offer insights into current best practices that can help maximize the results of a crowdsourcing effort.

Finally, in “Design for Service: The Advanced Services Transformation Roadmap at Rolls-Royce,” Andrew Harrison describes the latest work in the continuing evolution of Rolls-Royce from a product manufacturer to a services-led company. The transformation has included not only changes in the company’s business model, but also changes in product design to enable real-time monitoring and proactive service, changes in the spare parts supply chain, and changes in the roles and skills of technical employees. In his paper, Harrison describes the process Rolls-Royce uses to explicitly include design for service in the product development process. The position he holds, Chief Lifecycle Engineer, is a new role that did not exist a few years ago (and likely exists at few other companies). As his article makes clear, Andy Harrison, too, has had a career in perpetual beta.

As the articles in this issue highlight, the career landscape for innovation professionals is one of constant change. It involves cycles of discovery followed by consolidation and the search for best practices. This means that we may be systematizing some roles (for example, breakthrough innovation and open innovation) at the same time that we are creating new practices that upset the apple cart (like the need to design for services or the shift of a culture toward open innovation). As a result, although there are windows of predictability, a career in innovation requires continual reinvention—and some degree of career risk.

By contrast, I recently had a colonoscopy. My doctor, a masterful practitioner, has conducted tens of thousands of colonoscopies without a perforation. Tens of thousands! He saves lives every week. His career, however, is not lived in perpetual beta; it is lived within the bounds of well-established practice. As a patient, I can appreciate such a career; as an innovator, I just can’t imagine living it.

One thought on “An Innovation Career

  1. William Miller July 18, 2017 / 10:22 AM

    In the current issue of RTM, the paper “The People Side of Breakthrough Innovation” which is an interview with Gina O’Connor, is excellent but there are several gaps that have been described in previous RTM papers. First, the management system needs to be driven by the fourth generation (4G) of innovation theory and practice which has 12 principles including processes and an organizational structure that needs to be ambidextrous (split in two parts) for survival as described Tushman. The role of the Chief Innovation Officer (CiNO) is one of the 4G principles and so the role of the COO. The CiNO manages the part of the organization responsible for radical innovation whereas the COO manages the other part for incremental innovation. 4G recognizes that radical innovation is driven by dominant designs which have 3 parts – (1) capabilities to target new opportunities in a transformed market or industry in layered “stacks” that form processes driven by knowledge and contain services, platforms, tools, technologies and components, (2) new business models in a new ecosystem with multiple suppliers as partners, and (3) new market or industry structures such as a knowledge channel that connect customers during use of new capabilities with suppliers – example is the structure for the Internet of Things.

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