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Resolving the real-life challenges of innovators

  • Published: Feb 18, 2016 03:58
  • Writer: Detlef Reis | 1 viewed

At last November's Kuala Lumpur Innovation Forum, the organisers asked me to start a panel discussion with a short presentation on two interesting questions: "What are the challenges that innovators face in the real world?" and "What are the fundamentals of overcoming these challenges?"

Who are -- and are not -- innovators? First, let's exclude the non-creative majority of business professionals from the creative minority. But are all creative types also innovators? No, and here is why. There's no better explanation than this simple equation: creativity + action = innovation.

There are many highly creative people who have lots of novel, meaningful and original ideas but never do anything about them. We call these people dreamers. What is the difference between a dreamer and an innovator? Taking action. As such, innovators are the creative doers, which include inventors, designers and creative professionals.

So what real-life challenges do innovators face? I can think of three: their mindset, the majority and the money. Let me explain each one further:

The mindset: Most innovators are highly creative and typically come up with a never-ending stream of ideas. Moreover, they are entrepreneurial risk-takers, are able to spot opportunities and love to drive change.

But here's where this mindset can be both an asset and a liability. Most innovators love to move on to a new project before the present one is completed. Innovators are also the best and the worst people to pitch their ideas to key supporters. We love their passion and enthusiasm, but they lose their audience when they deep-dive into technicalities. They tend to be perfectionists who never complete a project because it's not perfect yet and dislike delegating work to better-qualified professionals.

Resolution: Master innovators are not only creative, but have also executional focus, discipline and persistence. They innovate one project at a time and give an innovation the time it needs to grow into something meaningful. As the British innovator James Dyson put it, "It is said that to be an overnight success takes years of effort. So it has proved with me."

Moreover, modern innovators should work within a wider team, consisting of a promoter to pitch ideas; designers and other specialists who support the execution; and an "adult supervisor" to keep an eye on project completion and profitability.

The majority: According to Everett Rogers's innovation diffusion theory, the innovators who drive change are just 2.5% of the population. They are supported by the early adopters (13.5%) who try and endorse innovations. If the adopters create enough buzz, the innovation can cross the chasm to the early majority (34%) and turn into a successful new product that subsequently reaches the late majority (34%) and eventually the laggards (16%). Do the maths -- only 16% of people create and promote change, while 84% resist change to a lesser or stronger extent.

Resolution: Overcome people's resistance by understanding who is who. This is where my innovation people-profiling method TIPS (Theories and Knowledge, Ideas, People, and Systems and Processes) can be helpful. I link Rogers's adoption curve to 11 TIPS innovator profiles to understand better who typically creates, endorses, opens up to and resists change.

In TIPS, the innovators are often ideators who are supported by tech-savvy conceptualisers and flamboyant promoters as early adopters. Partners, all-rounders, theorists, experimenters and coaches together form the early and late majority that eventually convinces the laggards (organisers, technocrats and systems buffs) to try the "new thing" that by now has already become an established innovation.

The money: Suppose for a moment you were an innovator like James Dyson. For years, you have invested time and money in a worthy innovation that has just been released into the market: do you deserve to monetise this innovation fully and get fairly paid for years of hard work?

Now let me ask another question: in the real world, do most innovators make good money and get fair compensation for their efforts? There is a disconnect between the few well-known innovation heroes celebrated in magazines and books and the many who failed to monetise their innovations.

The latter may have lacked the business savvy of a Thomas Edison, who also created viable business models to support his innovations. Or they may have been bullied out by established players with market power who copied the innovation and infringed intellectual property (IP) rights.

Resolution: As drivers of meaningful change and progress, innovators deserve to be paid fairly for the fruits of their work but have a responsibility to create viable business models and secure and register the IP rights too. Policymakers and courts must do their part also: innovators should be able to count on effective protection of their IP rights.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Ltd (, an ideation and innovation company in Asia, and an adjunct associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at