HBS Managing Innovation Winter 2012 Course


LINnovation! Scouting more human capital talent from the bench

Posted by susancheng


I know, I know. Permit me if  you will, another exploration of the LINsanity phenomenon taking the world by storm as applied to our managing innovation course. In full disclosure, I’m not an avid basketball fan nor do I claim to have followed Jeremy Lin’s career before he became famous as #17 with the New York Knicks. I am captivated by what I’m hearing and learning. I am fascinated with the details of his story and his rise to the top as it applies to innovation lessons.

I enjoyed reading Robert Reiss’s leadership article in Forbes this week, entitled, “What CEOs can Learn from Jeremy Linhttp://www.forbes.com/sites/robertreiss/2012/02/27/what-ceos-can-learn-from-jeremy-lin/.  One of Reiss’s key insights is to “identify the superstar on your bench” and as Reiss went through calculating Lin’s above average achievements before his fateful breakthrough, he determined that Lin wasn’t recognized yet because he was still under the radar, just waiting for an opportunity to finally shine.

That moment came when Coach Mike D’Antoni, after just one great game, made Lin a starter and the rest was history. Reiss’s take-away to CEOs is that they “should look under the radar in your organization— analyze P&Ls of overlooked businesses or current smaller untapped markets, seek breakthrough ideas from the depth of your organization, and view carefully potentially overlooked data because there may be a superstar on the bench.”

Now, this makes a lot of sense to me, and the cases of Innocentive, Threadless and OpenIDEO support this. These companies are experimenting with building more interesting and diverse human capital pipelines through their open, communal platforms (external talent pools) to better identify a broader range of superstars early and often. OpenIDEO’s challenges even provide  extra incentive to test out talent and see if people shine, with prospective applicants submitting their OpeIDEO entries as part of their application process for employment at IDEO.

I wanted to underscore this point around talent discovery with an excerpt from an interview that Reiss does in his story with Michael Chen, CEO of GE Media Finance about Jeremy Lin. Michael Chen tells Reiss, “Every corporation has 20-30 hidden Jeremy Lin’s in its organization.  I am talking about employees (men/women, diverse/non-diverse) who have the potential to become future leaders, but for one reason or another have yet to be discovered. As corporations get bigger, bureaucracy inevitably creeps in.  Sometimes, companies create several layers of management between employees and senior leaders, making it very difficult for these “Jeremy Lin’s” to be discovered.  Therefore, companies should create a process that gives potential superstar employees an opportunity to showcase their talents in front of senior leaders.”

Innocentive has a process. It taps into the creative surplus of knowledge workers who have energy to burn and a desire for cash and recognition in a formalized competition forum. Threadless, similarly runs their t-shirt competitions where designers are not buried in the muck, but have close, direct access to audience feedback loops who can spot and vote on the talent then and there and where the leadership team can hire the designers that keep rocking out the wins. In both these cases, the bureaucracy is strategically kept to a minimum with reduced layers of approval and red tape dividing creators and decision-makers. Or at least, creators in these companies have more access to decision-makers, managers, and CEOs.

I think these competitive forums are essential for innovation, and are crucial in spotting out the so-called next “Jeremy Lins” that lurk just right under the radar because they give folks opportunities to showcase their abilities in formalized ways. And while both these cases are examples of engaging more external talent outside the company to demonstrate skill and innovation by contributing their ideas, I would argue  that these formalized platforms for competition are needed just as much internally within organizations in order to spark innovation, boost employee morale, and tap into latent creativity that exists among workers.

As an example of this, I struggled with ways to promote talent from within organizations as a former executive recruiter and human capital manager. I most recently worked with the Public Schools system in Washington DC, where I was trying to figure out, in this behemoth governmental bureaucracy, how to better access more innovative and creative ideas from the 900+ central office staff that hailed from different parts of the school system to solve challenges  like:  increasing parental engagement, incorporating more teacher feedback in central office policies impacting teaching and learning and streamlining business operations. We also struggled to recognize talent across different departments. It was challenging for some middle managers and entering workers who were hungry to demonstrate skill, to figure out how to continue to advance in career paths once they got in and became very good in their original roles.

To this end, we piloted “Central Innovation Teams” that would provide staff more opportunities across the organization to showcase their talents, and unlock them from their “assigned jobs” and rotate them through different offices on shorter term, high-level projects where they could employ more creativity and bring their different perspectives. But, some of the impact was limited.  Employees competed to be on different assigned teams, and the challenges were all pre-defined by directors.

Lessons Learned:  Given some of the lessons I’ve taken away from our cases, I would design more of an open-sourced ideas competition, which would allow employees from across a wider swath of the school system (beyond the administrative arm) to include teachers and principals to enter their own ideas around defining key problems with certain guidelines. Then I would redesign the model to have participants formulate  cross-functional teams much like the Innocentive model to throw-down on projects that excited them and recognized their talent from within the organization. This truly would be tapping into more innovation from a more diverse community and enable the school system to accelerate its talent scouting and leverage more internal Jeremy Lin-type talent in the game of innovating.