The Innovative Mentor

the-innovative-mentorMentors see themselves as people developers. They take a long-term view of their staff and see innovation projects as an opportunity to stretch their employees’ capabilities and to help them achieve their aspirations. Depending on the scope of their ideas, innovators’ careers can be significantly shaped by this journey.

The Mentor Role in Innovation 

A mentor enables innovators to focus on their project results while also learning about themselves along the way. Leaders can mentor innovators through any of the practical business steps in the value creation process itself:

  • Connecting to emerging market trends and identifying the most significant opportunities
  • Gaining customer insights
  • Creating strong solutions and business models
  • Connecting to others who can help them create compelling value propositions
  • Learning how best to communicate and pitch their potential projects; and
  • How to implement quickly once approved and funded.

For example, a medical equipment manufacturer helped the engineers with new product ideas with their pitches. Many of the company’s engineers were not comfortable presenting their big ideas to the senior staff. A manager would work with them to develop the business case. Managers often co-presented with the idea champion to the senior staff. This allowed the engineers to focus on the technical side of the equation where they felt most comfortable while gradually building their pitching and business skills.

Mentors can also encourage innovators to look inside themselves, to understand themselves as leaders or project champions. When is it time to stick to an idea, and when is it time to listen to others and change course? When is it time for individual vision and when is it essential to collaborate and build a strong team with a shared vision? Innovators face a wide mix of business strategy and interpersonal challenges on their road to success. Leaders who have experience in these areas can offer timely guidance to help innovators successfully navigate this multidimensional path.

Beyond Typical Mentorship

Mentors don’t simply give information and advice. They ask open-ended questions that force innovators to think about themselves and the business challenges they face. They ask about lessons learned at each milestone as a way of furthering the innovator’s development. Identifying what worked, what didn’t, and why, should be a regular topic of conversation. In addition, acknowledging that learning through failure is valuable helps to build trust, encourage calculated risk-taking, and fosters a climate of innovation.

Playing the role of mentor means you are able to:

  • Use innovation efforts as an opportunity to develop innovators’ capabilities and careers
  • Coach an innovation champion and team through the entire innovation process
  • Ask tough questions and allow innovators to struggle, without taking over the project
  • Accelerate project team learning by encouraging experimentation, risk-taking, and iteration

Good mentors hold frequent development discussions, ensuring the dialogue is as much about the innovator as it is about the innovation. The time spent on mentoring varies from project to project, but is typically a matter of months rather than days. This time frame gives the mentor and idea champion time to explore the innovation journey together and develop opportunities for the learner to try out new capabilities.

Mentors can act as a sounding board to test and explore new solutions and options, and give advice based on their understanding of the organization and experience with other innovation projects. Since it’s also helpful when the mentor can coach the innovator through the tough challenges that inevitably show up, they need enough time working together to ensure they confront obstacles that will test the innovator’s skills.

A good mentor can cover the wide range of topics needed to enhance the growth of the individual and the results for the business. Often a mentor will play the role of a barrier buster. Playing the role of barrier buster means you are able to:

  • Provide the necessary time, space, tools, and data for your staff to innovate
  • Guide projects along the path of least resistance and avoid political pitfalls
  • Adjust policies, procedures, and organization practices to facilitate new idea implementation
  • Talk your peers through the fear, uncertainty, and doubt that often comes with change

Common Barriers to Plan For

Being a barrier buster requires you to be able to negotiate skillfully in tough situations with both internal and external groups. Innovation means change, and change can be quite disruptive and emotionally charged. Being able to gain concessions without damaging relationships is a valuable skill. Innovation leaders help new ideas mature and create paths of least resistance so projects can navigate the political, economic, and cultural obstacles. There are countless organizational barriers to innovation that cause it to be slow, inefficient, costly, risky, and frustrating. Being aware of some of the most typical obstacles can be helpful:

  • The organization lacks the enterprise-wide methods (concepts, practices, tools, language, or skills) for innovation.
  • There is not enough funding to form and facilitate innovation projects.
  • The organization is overly consensus-oriented, and any dissenting vote can bring an innovation project to a halt. Champions and sponsors give up or leave the company because it is too hard to get everyone onboard with ideas.
  • The organization’s relentless commitment to operational excellence prevents anything new and disruptive from being tried and tested. This is a classic example of a strength becoming a weakness.
  • Past success has robbed the organization of its willingness to take risks. Leaders play it safe and settle for “me too” strategies just to keep up with the pack, rather than boldly investing in a better future.
  • The organization lacks proper incentives for innovation. Idea champions are rarely recognized and rewarded for their efforts.
  • People are overworked and simply don’t have the bandwidth to take on their innovative ideas.
  • Organization silos prevent cross-boundary collaboration and limit the scale, speed, and impact of innovation.

Barrier busters must be politically savvy to meet these kinds of challenges. They need sensitivity to know how the specific people and their organization are likely to react. Barrier busters help their idea champions or project teams maneuver through complex political situations effectively because they can anticipate the organizational “landmines” and how to avoid them.

Persistence in the Face of Obstacles

Barrier busters are also determined. They don’t stop at the first signs of resistance and refuse to accept “no” for an answer whenever there is hope for success. They are resourceful, looking for the support and resources wherever they can be found. Barrier busters know the difference between the market saying “no,” and an organizational obstacle saying, “no.”

A leader might have learned from the VC role to let go of struggling projects, where customers don’t respond as expected or where the market does not respond positively, in order to move the resources to fund innovation winners. However, as a barrier buster, this same leader knows that organizational protectiveness does not mean the project is struggling in the market. The barrier buster fights for the opportunity to let customers decide which product or service is the business of the future.

History is full of examples of innovators who were told their ideas would not work, but who ultimately found ways to find the support and resources they needed. Consider what would have happened if these innovators had not persisted in the face of obstacles:

“Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.”

—Dr. Lee De Forest, “Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television.”

“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”

—Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

—Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”

—A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found FedEx.)

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy!”

—Response from the drillers Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist in his project to drill for oil in 1859. (quote source)

With innovation, mentorship goes beyond career path improvement. You must incorporate a variety of techniques to move both the innovator and invention forward. Download the complete chapter of Leading Innovation Ten Essential Roles for Harnessing the Creative Talent of your Enterprise for the full text on mentorship. In our next installment of the Leading Innovation series, we’ll review the Networker role. If you’d rather not wait, download the entire chapter today.

This blog post is part of the Leading Innovation series authored by Laszlo Gyorffy, MS. Laszlo is president of the Enterprise Development Group, an international consulting firm specializing in business strategy and innovation. He also is an accomplished speaker, certified instructional designer and trainer, and co-author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Ideas and The Global Innovation Science Handbook. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator a cloud-based toolkit that teaches people how to successfully generate and champion bigger, bolder, and better ideas.


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