The one thing I look for in an innovator
Mattia de Dominicis, VP Global R&D Director for Dish and Fabric at consumer goods giant RB, shares his insights on training and developing great innovators
In my 17 years in R&D at RB, I’ve worked on numerous innovation projects and supported a lot of colleagues through our graduate and trainee manager programmes.
But when I think about the most important skill that an innovator needs, it’s hard to settle on one.
There are so many skills that can help with innovation: strategic thinking. A creative mind. Good communication skills. Analytical ability. Project management. So when I’m putting together teams for the innovation programmes I lead, I’m looking for a group of people with all of the above skills, and more. The broader the variety, the better.
In my experience, it’s not actually a shared skill that successful innovators have in common, but something else: a passion. In other words, they have to really want to be involved.
So, how can an employer make that happen?
Firstly, companies must do everything they can to make employees feel passionate about their work. One of the most effective ways to do this is to make sure the innovation that you’re working on has a clear purpose. And by that I mean a purpose for the consumer, not just a target of increasing sales or margin or some other internal metric.
To be honest, if an innovation project doesn’t have a strong consumer purpose, you should question why you’re doing it in the first place. For example, at RB, everything we do starts and ends with the consumer as we seek to understand their needs and discover new ways to innovate and change their lives. But even when the purpose is clear to you, you also need to make sure it is clearly communicated and understood by your employees, and that they see how their efforts will contribute to it.
If people feel that their work will have a real impact in solving a problem for the consumer, they’ll feel passionate and motivated, and do better work.
The second important thing companies can do is select people who are genuinely passionate about innovation projects. There will always be people with different interests, abilities, priorities and personalities in a business, and they can’t all be passionate about everything. Every project will get some people genuinely excited, and others not.
Smart companies will let them decide, by giving people the opportunity to opt in – or opt out – of an innovation project based on whether they feel it’s right for them.
You may find that the ones who are most passionate about a project are in a different part of the organisation, or perhaps don’t have specific experience of the specialism that the innovation focuses on. In other cases they may work for a supplier or partner company that you’re collaborating with. To tap into their passion, employers need to be agile in the way they manage people.
And if people aren’t genuinely passionate about a piece of innovation, you can’t force them to be. Instead, support them in working on something else that they are passionate about, and maybe they’ll become a key player in your next big innovation.