Management Outside the Box

Why do innovators leave?

Every company wants to innovate, but once leadership gains experience they routinely think they know everything about their industry and stop innovating.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule but it is the norm, it’s the same as “it works, so why fix it?”.  Horses worked, why did someone invent the automobile?  The telegraph worked, why did someone invent the telephone?  Innovation leads to change, and you can either be the innovator or a relic of the past.

This is why innovators leave companies.  They see leadership as an obstacle that can’t be overcome and leave with their innovation.  And sure some will fail and come back, but some will create industry, or world, changing innovations and make millions.  If leaders can recognize these innovators and harness their talents they can reap the rewards and the company can make the millions.  The key to keeping innovators is embracing the mentality, building a structure that encourages innovation, and giving innovators credit for their work.

The mentality

Leaders have to accept the innovators mentality, they don’t have to have it themselves but they have to embrace those who do and want to innovate in their industry.  If leaders can recognize that innovators have vision and then be willing to take a risk on them, leaders will more often than not look like heroes for bringing innovative products and services to the market that will push the company into the future.

The difficulty with embracing innovation comes with breaking out of not only your own mindset but convincing other leaders and stakeholders that investing in innovation is a worthwhile investment.  There is no clear metric for innovation, and so it’s impossible to put up a powerpoint and say “this is our ROI for innovation this quarter”.  Leaders have to do the heavy lifting and explain that long term investment in innovation pays out in ways that can’t be measured by traditional business metrics.

Most innovation is like a brick wall, you don’t just drop in a brick wall and say it’s done, you have to build the wall brick by brick. Each innovation is a brick in that wall, slowly building upon one another to form the wall.  Sure sometimes you’ll get a world changing innovation, and that’s great but leaders need to acknowledge that those are not expected and when they do happen they are rare.  Leaders who truly understand innovation, understand the one brick at a time mentality.

What is the innovators mentality?

There is no one blue blueprint for an innovator, but some common things to look for are someone coming up with ideas that seem out of the norm, someone who rejects the status quo and actually presents ways to improve it.  Basically you want to look for creative thinkers who can not only see the problem, but then develop a plan to solve it.

Drive fast and Take chances

In a 2017 letter to shareholders Jeff Bezos explained the company’s mindset for decision making.

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow…If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Innovation isn’t a committee driven process, it’s someone seeing a problem and finding a fix.  Now that’s not to say a group of people can’t work together to solve a problem, in fact the majority of the time it’s the best way to solve a problem.  Groups bring different mindsets and different ideas that can lead to bigger and better innovations.  Innovators need to be free to think outside the box, to let their minds wander and come up with ideas.  Putting innovators in planning committees to develop innovation will only serve to stifle the innovation you are trying to generate.

The best way to utilize innovators in a structured environment is to give them a problem, set loose boundaries, and give them a budget.  Once you’ve done that, tell them to find a solution and set them free.  Leaders should also encourage presenting multiple solutions, sometimes people will come up with different solutions to the same problem and now you have options to choose from that once picked can be built on by the whole team.  And maybe ideas from one innovator can be rolled into the idea that leadership picks to improve the idea further.

Leaders also need to accept that innovators may not always have all the information.  As the quote from Jeff Bezos above illustrates, waiting for all the information before you make a decision will cost you in the long run.  If you have enough information to make a reasonable hypothesis then run with it and make changes along the way to improve.  I do this with this blog, sure I do research, I gather notes, read articles and papers, but I don’t obsess over finding every detail on a subject.  I gather enough data to understand the subject then start writing and add more data as I write.

Encouragement leads to loyalty and dedication

The biggest roadblock to innovation is the mindset.  Most organizations just don’t have the innovator’s mindset, they have a system that works and they don’t want to change.  The first step to encouraging innovation within your organization is to set up an innovation group, staff it with people who you find have the innovator’s mindset, give them a budget, give them guidelines, and set them free.  Sure you can give them problems you have and want solutions to, but tell them that they have the right to spend some time working on problems they want to work on.  I would suggest giving them every Friday to work on their passion project, this not only gives them something to look forward to every week, but can lead to innovations to problems you didn’t even know existed.

Google famously had a 20% time rule which allowed employees to work on “passion projects” for 20% of their paid time.  This led to multiple products that went to market, the two biggest of which are Gmail and Google AdSense.  AdSense is now estimated to be 25% of Google’s overall revenue.  I include this to show that giving innovators the freedom to work on passion projects can lead to huge profit generators, you just have to be willing to understand that not everything is going to be great.

While setting up an innovation group is great, people crave recognition for their work.  This is where when an innovation is implemented you need to make sure the person or people who are responsible for it know they are appreciated.  Give them an award, if you have a company newsletter write a story about them and put it out to everyone within the company.  And once it’s ready for the public make sure to include the innovators in the press release.

Innovation for career advancement

Some of the best leaders are innovators, leadership should always be looking to pull from the pool of innovators to fill leadership roles.  Innovators bring a new mindset to leadership that benefits the organization as a whole.  By spreading them out across your organization you will slowly bring an innovator’s mindset to the whole organization leading to invitations outside of the dedicated innovation group.

Care should be taken when pulling from the innovation group for leaders, not every innovator will make a good leader, and if you pull too many people at one time the innovation group will fail to meet its goals.  Leaders should always be on the lookout for new members of the innovation group and add them as soon as it’s possible, this will help supplement the group as you pull members to take on leadership roles, and will add fresh ideas to the group which will lead to more innovation.


Innovation and innovators don’t always make sense to those in leadership positions, but leaders who embrace innovators and their ideas will see advancements they didn’t even know were possibilities previously.  The key is to provide the space and structure to innovators to think creatively and the willingness to accept that sometimes they will fail and not punish them for it, but when they succeed give them encouragement and recognition.

Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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