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High-impact Talent and Mature Organizations: A-players, Creatives, and Innovators

66389_1405765063846_2728478_nI recently came across three articles that caused me to think about “high-impact talent” in “mature organizations.” Each addressed a different type of potential, high-impact talent in mature organizations:  A-players, Creatives, and Innovators.  All three types might potentially play a role in bringing about successful transformation in mature organizations and businesses.

I began to wonder which of the three types might represent the most significant “high-impact” type of talent in a mature organization. While perhaps the scarcest resource, it seems Innovators might be the most generative, impactful type.

Mature Organizations

By mature organizations, I mean those that have reached a tipping point between sustainability and obsolescence, due to changing environmental conditions and lagging adaptation.  Mature organizations are by definition “set in their ways” — not necessarily in an absolute sense, but in terms of strong ingrained inertial biases.  Mature organizations exhibit this behavior, whether their successfulness still seems solid (despite gathering changes that have not been internalized) or whether they are starting to show signs of breakdown and there is some internal awareness that changes or major transformation is needed.  In effect, mature organizations have inertial tendency to keep doing what they are doing in the way they have been doing it–sometimes even when there are rising pockets of awareness of the need for change and some desire to see it happen.

High-Impact Talent in Mature Organizations

By high-impact talent in this context, I mean types of talent, integral to the organization, that can consistently influence or generate significant changes in thought and practice and thus contribute substantially to initiating a global process of positive, adaptive transformation in a mature organization.

Types of High-Impact Talent

A-Players (as covered in a recent HBR article, “The Behaviors that Define A-Players“), are probably the most beloved type of high-impact talent for mature organizations. A-players “walk on water,” and they are the real “workhorses” of the mature organization.  They produce more than anyone else, are most reliable, have transparent souls, “play well with others,” “support the mission,” and are adaptive to some amount of change (they can roll with normal organizational turbulence, or not allow it to distract, and they can be counted on to follow marching orders/take on the new assignments leadership deems important). “A-players” may be agents of incremental changes within accepted boundaries, Their value to mature organizations is to keep things afloat and be ready and willing to make a change in direction when leadership makes a path or at least the destination clear.

Creatives, a truly hard-to-define type, were recently called out in “Help Wanted–We Need a Little Help Here, People” an article by Geoffrey Moore, the author of Crossing The Chasm.  Creatives, as I see it, are those out-of-the-mainstream, cerebral types of people who routinely are thinking about things differently, come up with startlingly fresh ideas, and have a superior skill at expressing them in appealing, interesting ways.  They tend to be clustered in certain jobs that range from artistic to technical (with plenty in the middle, including marketing, et al). In many ways, they are thought of as free spirits, sporadic in performance (quite different from A-Players), and perhaps as “less important” in the managerial mindset of a mature organization.  However, Moore tries to argue that Creatives are critically needed in mature organizations…

to extend the useful life of an established franchise. Customers have committed to this enterprise and, all other things being equal, would prefer not to switch, since switching is disruptive to them and takes attention away from where it could be better spent. Moreover, there is a whole ecosystem of partners who make their living supporting the franchise, provided it can stay relevant, and they certainly don’t want to see it go away. Most importantly, the franchise itself operates at scale, which means, unlike even the coolest of start-ups, it can have a sustainable impact on a global basis today… The world needs technology, and it needs it to operate at scale. Yes, we can always invent something better, and we should. But we also need to be better stewards of what we have already built. That requires us to take risk and breaking with established conventions, and that in turn is what requires the engagement of creative talent.

Of course, Moore’s argument, that Creatives are needed in mature organizations, reveals their apparent absence (and a possible antipathy between mature organizations and Creative types).  Many of the comments posted in response to Moore’s article reveal doubts about whether (despite Moore’s well-intended prescriptions) mature organizations and Creatives really can mix blissfully and productively.  One commenter, Andy Reischer, Co Founder, RJabber, stated bluntly: “Creative people can do amazing things, but by their very nature are disruptive, unpredictable, and difficult to manage. They quickly learn to avoid the enterprise where they are not welcome. If you want them to work on your problems, then you have to embrace them.”  It seems real Creatives are a “breed-apart” that require a special kind of habitat. They may not thrive happily in mature enterprises where they and their contributions may not be well understood or fully appreciated.  And while they can have very significant impacts in mature enterprises, those events are usually specific and sporadic (e.g., a branding coup, a spectacular UX feature, etc.). It’s perhaps not surprising that creatives are often parts of agencies or are freelancers.  So while business expert Geoffrey Moore makes the prescriptive claim that Creatives should be “high-impact talent” in mature organizations, how things really are seems to be more complex.  It is not even clear that for most mature organizations Creatives are considered high-impact talent.  When rank-ordered against A-Players, A-Players will survive the cut any day (unless that specific Creative talent is engaged in what is currently a critical project). Creative talent that tend to remain for long periods in mature organizations do so not because of their superior creativity, but because they are low cost producers of quasi-creative outputs that support business-as-usual. Real top-performing Creatives will be engaged occasionally when their services are needed to achieve a certain result, but they are not viewed, internal to an organization, as integral agents of or participants in change. Indeed, Creatives may only rarely qualify as high impact talent in mature organizations according to our definition.

Innovators are perhaps the least visible and scarcest, but the most significant and needed type of high impact talent for mature organizations.  While A-Players and Creatives are well-known types of talent to management in mature businesses (though not equally recognized as “high impact”), Innovators as a talent type are not typically a part of the management consciousness (neither thought of in terms of roles that are critical to the ongoing success of the organization nor, as noted below, bright blips on the talent acquisition or talent management radar of HR).  Despite their importance, one could almost say Innovators might “not compute” for mature organizations.  However, an excellent article, “The Innovator’s DNA–Do organizations have the talent in place to drive competitive advantage?” recently published in Talent Management magazine drew on research published in 2012 by member-based research and advisory firm Corporate Executive Board Co., or CEB and  goes a long way in explaining what Innovators are, why they are important, and how organizations should address them. Here are some curated excerpts from the article:

Innovators are scarce:

Innovative Industries Based on these behaviors and 2012 analysis of 2.7 million people in CEB’s global talent database, only 1 in 17 — or 5.9 percent — of graduates, professionals and managers globally have the needed set of competencies to be a true innovator. ……

Out of 17 sectors, the technology industry is able to attract and acquire the strongest supply of innovator talent. Other industries ranking high on the scale include professional services, food, beverages and tobacco, and retail and consumer goods. The public sector ranks in the middle. Industries with weaker bench strength for innovators include oil and gas, engineering, telecommunications and banking. The issue in these sectors, the research suggests, is that they do not have a clear lens on the people component of innovation and the methods in place to identify those with the talents needed to deliver effective innovation.

Identifying Innovators requires new thinking:

To find true innovators, talent managers need to first know what they are looking for — what are the behaviors that characterize an innovator? Then once they know whom to look for, they need to know where to look for them — is the talent readily available in their location? While these questions are important to all business leaders, human resources and talent management both play an important role in identifying and cultivating the type of talent required to produce innovation. When asked to think of innovations in recent years, many people think of Apple Inc.’s products and its former CEO Steve Jobs — a man who reached iconic status and has been labeled as an innovator. Yet Jobs would have more than likely pointed out that effective innovation calls for more than just coming up with new ideas.

What are Innovators and what they do;

Effective innovators need the intellectual capability to see new possibilities and the analytical skills to interpret and translate market and customer data into specific offerings. They must be able to focus on goals, yet also persist in the face of failures and make quick turns in thinking. They need to be skilled at articulating needs and persuading, influencing and selling ideas to others. It is also critical that they work collaboratively and manage through potential conflict.

Innovation is more than just being creative and intelligent. But what are the talents that mark the true innovator?

CEB conducted research in an attempt to answer that question. Overall, the work points to two key clusters of behavior that drive innovation.

The first, focus and insight, addresses the individual’s ability to bring ideas together and pinpoint important information from disparate data sources. This cluster also emphasizes the importance of a person’s willingness to take calculated risks, persistence to achieve goals and ability to link solutions to clear customer needs.

The second cluster of behaviors focuses on networking and collaboration, which is about more than just how a team collaborates to achieve a shared purpose and outcome. The behaviors in this cluster include listening, consulting and proactively communicating with important stakeholders across a business. CEB research shows that true innovators not only leverage networks effectively to capture information and identify those with insight, resources and influence, but they can also sell their ideas to gain the support and funding they need, as well as work through potential conflict.

 What organizations should do to host innovators:

To drive more innovation, firms should foster a culture of idea creation from the top of the business. Talent management professionals have an important role to play in re-engineering HR recruiting processes and development practices to surface and engage innovation potential in the workforce. To do this, they should focus on three vital contributions. First, it’s critical that HR teams understand not only the technical skills and knowledge required for a role, but also the behaviors that drive effective innovation — like focus and insight, and the ability to persuade and mobilize internal networks. …. . Second, HR teams need to have a strong knowledge of the bench strength of key “innovator talent.” Knowing where there are innovation gaps and surpluses is critical when acquiring new employees. ….. Third, using talent intelligence to help the broader organization create teams with a blend of innovator talents is significant.

Innovator talents are rare, yet teams who excel at five or more behavioral markers are 50 percent more effective, CEB research suggests. By using talent intelligence, HR teams can build teams of complementary innovator strengths and guide the manager on how to manage across those talents. Doing so will increase the likelihood that the investment and effort placed in innovation will pay off. For many organizations, team mobilization balancing complementary behaviors within teams may be the quickest way to drive innovation. Planning for “innovation teams” allows organizations to get immediate returns from mixing and matching capabilities, even as they embark on longer-to-pay-off efforts to hire and build innovation skills. As companies around the world seek to adapt, evolve and grow with fewer resources, the ability to innovate is imperative. Getting the people part of the innovation equation right is a critical factor in determining whether organizations innovate successfully or not. It’s not surprising that true innovators are less common than most companies realize. Organizations need to look at their workforce through the right lens, factoring in the rounded skills and behavioral traits necessary to deliver innovation in today’s business environment.

[Once again, the full article can be read at “The Innovator’s DNA–Do organizations have the talent in place to drive competitive advantage?” ]

While the “Innovator’s DNA” article does not specifically address mature organizations, it is not difficult to come to the understanding that the findings are entirely relevant — perhaps carrying a greater urgency –especially for mature organizations. In these organizations, the Innovator type of talent probably has the highest impact on generating change and initiating transformation necessary to the continued success and perhaps survival of a mature organization.

While optimal balance of Innovators and A-players may be one where there are more A-players than Innovators, it is crucial for management — well acquainted with A-Players — to not over look the necessary ingredient of Innovators in the organizational mix.

Managers in mature organizations are very capable of identifying, nurturing, and retaining A-Player types of talent.  But they need to come to understand the critical role of Innovator types of talent and the impact they can have on change and transformation necessary to the future success of the organization.  They must also create a culture and develop the competencies across the organization to understand the Innovator type of talent, be able to identify and recruit that talent, and to adjust the culture and practices to integrate that talent into the organization as a recognized critical resource that will drive the organization’s future success.