Innovation as a Career Path & Breakthrough Capabilities

September 18, 2019

In our “Innovation as a Career Path” Master Class, Gina O’Connor and Andrew Corbett discussed how companies can retain innovative talent to achieve breakthrough innovation. Other topics of conversation include:

  • Why companies should develop an internal capability for breakthrough innovation
  • Challenges of breakthrough innovation
  • The three competencies of breakthrough innovation

O’Connor is a Professor of Innovation Management at Babson College, where she conducts research and teaches on the topic of corporate entrepreneurship. Corbett serves as Chair of the Entrepreneurship Division at Babson and has provided consulting to corporate clients across the globe. Download a PDF of the slide deck.

Barriers to Breakthrough Innovation

During the webcast, O’Connor discussed the roadblocks innovators face when developing an idea. Often, O’Connor said, funds run dry before ideas move out of the incubation stage.

O’Connor also sites the lack of innovation expertise inside of companies and organizational resistance as other obstacles. Organizational uncertainty can create another barrier. “How you handle the organizational uncertainty turns out to be probably the biggest problem,” she elaborated.

In order to conquer these challenges, O’Connor said companies must build the right skills to manage innovation projects.

“The responsibility now of a person who’s going to be managing one of these potential breakthrough projects, which will become an emerging business, is a very different role from a traditional project management role,” she elaborated. “We want to look into how companies are trying to actually build a capability for breakthrough innovation, because it’s so dramatically different. …”

The Three Capabilities for Breakthrough Innovations

According to O’Connor, breakthrough innovations require competency in three categories: discovery, incubation, and acceleration. Discovery involves conceptualizing new ideas, while incubation develops those ideas into business propositions. The acceleration category focuses on scaling new ideas. These competencies also correlate with the maturity of a project.

O’Connor said companies should identify what stage a project is in and provide it with the appropriate resources. “Companies…would transition an incubating business into an operating unit, and that would die on the vine without being resourced properly,” she said.

The three competencies require different skills, O’Connor said. However, innovators at large companies tend to work across all three roles. This can cause gaps in coverage and leave innovators spread thin.

“We’ll see companies that put people in these gigantic roles, asking them to…do things that stretch across all three of these primary functions,” Corbett said. “And it’s just really not possible.”

According to Corbett, companies need to create roles that require skills specific to each category.

The Three Capabilities Needed for Break Through Innovation

1. Discovery

  • Creation, recognition, elaboration, articulation, or opportunities

2. Incubation

  • Evolving the opportunity into a business proposition

3. Acceleration

  • Ramping up the business to stand on its own

Challenges of Innovation Roles

According to O’Connor, there is no defined career path for an “innovation expert.” In her research, she found that organizations often made up job titles tailored to each innovator.

“Those roles were not legitimized…there was no real, clear definition. And so, as the project would move forward, the person was expected to move forward with the project. So there was a lot of expansion of that person’s responsibility, and ambiguity in terms of what they were supposed to do,” explained O’Connor.

Innovators also face great expectations. Bringing ideas into reality seems fairly simple, O’Connor said, but organizational challenges often complicate the process. In the face of adversity, the innovator is often expected to pull this weight on their own.

Innovators often volunteer their time to pursue breakthrough projects. In order to retain innovators, O’Connor said, companies must create space for them to grow in their desired career path.

According to O’Connor, innovation roles should be institutionalized instead of disappearing when an innovator leaves the organization. “When [a job is codified and] the [person in the role] move[s] on, we actually have an empty position that we post, to try to actually put somebody in that,” she said. “It’s only through that, we believe now, that companies will really be able to institutionalize this capability of breakthrough innovation or strategic innovation, and get better at it over time.”