Many misconceptions abound about how to best enable innovation within the enterprise, with businesses and innovation functions (facing both external and internal pressure) often focusing on the short-term and the materialistic rather than long term change. From observing various companies- both public and private- attempt to embed a culture of innovation, it is clear that in many examples what distinguishes those that are successful is not bountiful funding, effective marketing, or involvement from every employee; it is frequently the drive of one individual. This ‘Innovation Superstar’ is not usually the CEO or even at Exec/ Board level, but is exceptionally focused, has a talent for inspiring and motivating, and can deliver on a day-to-day as well as a strategic level.
The Innovation Superstar is an individual who recognises the importance of focusing on the higher objectives of the innovation programme as a whole and does not get diverted by the intricacies or technicalities that other innovation teams will be distracted by (and which they will later use as reasons for their failure). He/ she understands, for example, that creativity will often be needed to overcome the funding hurdle and appreciates that support from the top may not be a given at first. Likewise, he/ she regards failures as an important part of innovation and something to be learned from (rather than give excuses for), and that resources are just tools to be worked with- they can be very useful and instrumental, but should not be the determining factor in the success of the initiative.
Being an Innovation Superstar doesn’t just involve running a project from the business side; a lot of people can deliver, but few are able to remain almost universally respected and well liked whilst doing so. This talent- an unusual one in the corporate world- is often achieved through a mixture of business success (with a proven track record) and that oft hard-to-find characteristic “likability.” The prevalence of this virtue in Superstars isn’t a coincidence; it’s not easy to implement an innovation programme, and the individual understands that the most effective route to long term success is by making friends, asking favours and co-ordinating their Superstar team rather than burning bridges.
Companies will often not realise how instrumental this individual is, and fail to see that it is the individual rather than the tools that is the cause of any success (thereby assuming that the loss of a Superstar is not a problem as they can achieve the same effect whilst now saving money). If a Superstar is completely unsupported or leaves an organisation, however, it will not be long before the innovation programme is floundering and the excuses begin. Superstars are often amazing individuals but they can’t enact amazing change by themselves; for those companies that do recognise the importance of these individuals, trusting in the Superstar (understanding that some of their working practices will be unconventional, giving them time, and not expecting every venture to be a success), engaging with them (keeping an open communication channel and involving them in wider opportunities- both internal and external) and recognising what they’re trying to do (by both giving them space and highlighting their work when appropriate) can go a long way to help ensure the Innovation Superstar is able to continue doing great work.