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On The Difference Between 'Discovery' And 'Delivery' Skills

(This is from Edition 16 of The Upleveler, our weekly smartletter)

The Innovator's DNA

"The Innovator's DNA" is a book about the traits that corporate innovators typically have (there are five - let's talk about them another time). Based on studies and interviews, it's a good starting point if you are entrusted with thinking about how innovation culture should be fostered.An under-rated part of the book is a distinction it makes between two sets of traits: 'discovery' and 'delivery'. When companies are born, they are usually helmed by 'discovery-oriented' people. Skills such as experimenting, asking questions, and even being good at getting feedback on an idea from their network. They can find a blank canvas, find a new way to fill it, and ultimately spot an enthusiastic market for this.As companies survive and grow, they need a different set of people to shepherd this phase - people with 'delivery' skills. They are good at delivering a business model, improving processes and productivity, and reducing failures. These guys are excellent at colouring within the lines and selling to the market.Over time, the organisation becomes biased towards recruiting and rewarding delivery-oriented people, and reducing space for the discovery-oriented folks. And this is not a good or a bad thing in itself, it's just the need of the hour.

Re-enter 'Innovation'

So far, so good: you are navigating the curves and contours of the S-Curve. But then some day you feel the need to 'innovate'. Re-discover your mojo. Shake off your status quo. You are the inclusive type of leader and organisation, so you want to get your employees to become 'innovative'. However, the people, the systems, the rewards are all skewed towards delivery skills. Worse, you expect people to now do both: delivery + a little bit of discovery on the side. This is tough. You've spent your entire life optimizing for delivery skills: staying inside the lines, immersed in years of rules about how to fill the canvas, and never questioning the lines themselves. And now someone asks you to do the opposite.It's almost unfair as well.

So what can leaders of such orgs do?

From our work in helping such organisations bring a newer age of innovation culture, we have three recommendations:

  1. Acknowledge the gradient. Most execs in mature organisations are themselves delivery-oriented. So when they expect their workforce to start behaving intrapreneurially, they don't realise just how steep this can be. So show empathy, try adopting the same set of changes, and help your folks deal with this. Things are going to take time.

  2. Recruit differently. If you deeply care about innovation, you have to deliberately start recruiting people with better discovery skills. Companies recruit for specific delivery-oriented roles and then expect a 'personality transplant'. This will take time, and in some cases, never happen. If you want a horse that will drink water from a new pool, you better get a water-loving horse in the first place.

  3. Provide Practice Arenas. Developing discovery skills needs regular practice and feedback. Start providing the right practice arenas for this. This is not something that is to be delegated to the Learning department, but needs a multi-departmental approach led by you. The key question: how can we provide regular small-and-large ways for people to build their delivery skills across the entire gamut of their work-life?

The third point is something that we're actively experimenting with. If you've got a thought on this or want to know more about what's cooking, do let us know in the comments.


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