Why Innovators are Never the Popular Kids

by Jeffrey Phillips

Why Innovators are Never the Popular KidsAs a people, we tend to group ourselves into tribes or communities that accept our foibles and issues and often reflect them. Perhaps no place is more representative of this fact than high school. Some of my favorite movies are about high school: Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club and so on. The reason: everything falls into simple, neat categories (jocks, stoners, beauty queens, nerds, etc) and the real action takes place when someone tries to stray outside the natural groupings (a jock becomes a stoner, for instance) or when two groups intersect (a beauty queen dates a nerd, for example).

In business, there are tribes or communities as well. You have finance types, marketing types and sales types, for example. These tribes are social among themselves, share the same language and experiences, and look at the other tribes or communities with suspicion or disdain. We have the Six Sigma types, the manufacturing types, the legal team and so on. And for the most part, we work in small, homogeneous teams with little intermixing.

In business, the executives are the jocks, the finance team are the beauty queens, the marketers and pr team are the stoners and the manufacturing team are the nerds. Note that so far I haven’t placed the innovators.

That’s because an innovator, like a prophet, is never accepted, even in his own community. Innovators are trying to change the status quo, and don’t accept or don’t play along with the established norms or expected behavior. So “innovators” who should be jocks are often at the periphery of that community, and innovators who are beauty queens are at the periphery of that community. Unfortunately, innovators often don’t flock well together either. While they share common tools, methods and perspectives, they often have very different timeframes and expectations for success. So it’s rare to find a healthy innovation community, because some of the natural tensions exist (I’m a finance guy, what am I doing here?) as well as outcome tensions exist (you want to disrupt my line of business?) so innovators don’t make the best community members.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t try. Innovators should form tribes or communities within organizations and should reinforce each other, it is often simply hard to do that. An innovator from finance and an innovator from marketing and an innovator from manufacturing are already outsiders in their own rights, since they’ve been attempting to upset the established order. They don’t share similar backgrounds or education, or roles or priorities, so bonding except over the fact that no one else gets what they are trying to do is tough.

Being an internal innovator in a firm that doesn’t value or appreciate innovators can be a lonely life. The jocks shun you, the beauty queens ignore you, the stoners don’t understand you and the nerds think you’re crazy. No wonder innovation is so difficult and so rare, and requires a person with commitment and vision. It takes a lot of guts to demand disruptive change from a comfortable corporate culture, to look beyond the three month timeframe that most of your compatriots are fixated on. You, the innovator, are a disrupter, a berserker, a righteous distraction, often right and rarely supported. You’ll never be on the homecoming court.

But every once in a while, everyone in class will be glad you were there with the bright idea that saved the day.


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.

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  1. This is a post which is so accurate. Innovators never fit in, and if they *do*, they can hardly be said to be doing their jobs. It is indeed a lonely life.

    But there are other consequences, of course, one of which is that innovators struggle to get a decent performance review out of their bosses, no matter how good they are. I wrote about this a while back .

    A world where innovators aren’t lonely and get reviewed and compensated in proportion to the value they add is something to dream of, I suppose.

  2. Hi Jeffrey

    Very well said, I absolutely agree with your views and point here.
    I think that’s why most innovation managers only stay in this position up to 3 years.

    Steen

  3. Yes. Right on. But it is a two way street. The innovators with the most success are the ones who understand what it takes to “sell” their innovative nature to the financial types (those who like routine and stability) etc. And vice versa, the most successful business folks understand that they can not shut out the innovator types either.

    See the book by John Gartner “Hypomanic Edge: the link between craziness and success in America.” The one thing that “hypomanics” (Innovators tend to have this trait) have which makes them think differently is that they have a different rhythm. It is the seemingly inconsistent rhythm that confuses those who like routine.

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