Harold Hildebrand was a young musician and technical whiz who got a job with Exxon Mobil right out of university. Not long after that, he discovered a disruptive technology that could find oil by using sound.
Traditionally, oil companies essentially wandered around, digging into the ground and crossing their fingers. Hildebrand found that if an explosive charge was set off underground, he could use a technique called autocorrelation to analyze the pitch of the returning sound waves to lead to oil-rich areas.
The discovery saved Exxon millions of dollars, and made Harold rich enough to retire at age 40, using his money to start a company called Antares, developing audio processing software. At a dinner party with an associate, the man’s wife joked that she wished he could make something that made her sing more in tune.
This stuck with Hildebrand, and he ended up using the same concepts he developed with Exxon to create a transformational technology that fixes the pitch of a bad singer’s voice – he called it Auto-tune.
Within years, up to 95% of top 40 songs used Auto-Tune in their production, and it has been relied on so much that the joke is that many stars cannot sing without it. Here’s a great example from Britney Spears.
The point of all of this is that it took the passion of the original inventor to get the idea off the ground. Innovation isn’t just about being able to identify the good ideas, but also about following them through effectively.
There are countless examples of people like Harold Hildebrand who develop fantastic ideas and enjoy great success. A common thread in many of these stories is that the original inventor is involved all the way to the release of a commercial product. This is one of the many reasons why smaller companies are often so good at innovation – a small team keeps that passion all the way to the finish line in spite of the obstacles.
How can we harness this in the context of a larger organization? Why do ideas seem to die on the vine so often? Why do we have so many ideas, and yet so few of them actually make it to market?
In product development, there are typically many stages to the life cycle of a new technology and resulting product. These stages are often managed by separate teams, each handing the project off to the next after their job is done. The original inventors are rarely involved in every stage.
It is important to acknowledge this important facts: Inventors are often emotionally invested in their ideas. Their ideas are their metaphorical “babies” – and they want to see their babies grow up. The result is that they will be the single most passionate evangelist of the idea. If you want a good idea to fail, put it in the hands of apathetic 3rd parties, who might give up at the first major obstacle. But if you want it to succeed, keep the person who came up with the idea involved in some way right through to the end, despite obstacles.
In a large company, it can be impractical to keep the idea originator at the helm throughout the process, but they don’t have to be running the show – they just need to be involved in some way.
Here are just a few ideas on how to keep the original innovator adjacently involved, without overburdening them or the project’s progress:
- Make them a “special consultant” to the project. This can help others understand the technology, and also turn the inventor on to the business side of things.
- Have the project manager give them regular updates on progress, for example when it reaches each stage gate, and invite feedback.
- Give them some input into the internal naming or codename of the project.
- Ask for their help when things seem to be stuck, even if its marketing or business case related. An outside, out-of discipline view can often be invaluable in solving problems or acting as a sanity check.
- Give them the opportunity to attend some of the internal presentations about the project, and again encourage feedback.
The key to the execution of these ideas is that they need to be approached sincerely – it is not just to provide lip service to the innovator’s ideas – you are including them because they are a truly valuable asset to ensure a positive outcome.
Clearly, their role is not to have final sign-off on anything, but to act as an active participant in the success of the project. Each responsible department (marketing, R&D, etc.) still has final say on the decisions within their domain, however the originator’s advice, when asked for, is always truly valued even if it is not acted upon.
Finally, following these ideas can have a positive motivational effect. By involving the originator, you will show them that you have pride in them and their work. You will expose their talent to other parts of the company (i.e. management) – this can open up important doors for them. This can be highly motivating.
Try it out on your next project– even if you don’t get more final products to market, you might enjoy increased engagement from your employees, increasing trust and communication, and even more ideas in the future because you have made it a more fulfilling and rewarding experience. It’s the kindling that ignites the fire of a more innovative company.
Paul Wagorn is the President of IdeaConnection, one of the world’s leading Open Innovation service companies, helping solve difficult problems for some of the largest companies in the world.