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Innovators Need Six Key Traits to Get an Idea Off the Drawing Board and Earn That Very First Dollar of Profit

Successfully Completing the "First Mile" of Innovation Requires a Specialized Mix of Abilities, and Not Everyone Has Them, Says Innovation Expert Scott D. Anthony

NEW YORK, NY -- (Marketwired) -- 03/18/14 -- True innovators leverage great ideas to create both market impact and a profitable business. The right driver can speed an innovation effort through its perilous first mile, from drawing board to the first dollar of profit -- while the wrong driver can cause a wreck.

"Every company needs an organic innovation strategy to drive growth and keep up with changing markets," says Scott D. Anthony, Managing Partner of the strategy and innovation consulting firm Innosight. "But the core skills and systems employed by most business leaders are optimized around supporting today's business model -- not developing tomorrow's. A knack for experimentation and tolerance for failure are among the essential skills leaders need in innovation's first mile. And not every executive has those skills."

Anthony runs down a list of key traits in his new book, The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas into the Market (Harvard Business Review Press, May 2014).

Empathy and experience are two "must-haves" for drivers of innovation:

  • Empathy for the problems, desires, and constraints of target customers: Empathy is critical to developing solutions with sufficient resonance to support a scalable business. And innovators who identify strongly with customers often find better commercial traction.

    Anthony points to the example of Netflix founder Reed Hastings and his personal frustration with paying late fees for movie rentals. According to Anthony, too often corporate innovation efforts suffer from gaps in this kind of customer empathy.

  • Courses and lessons from the "school of experience": Management experience should match the needs of the business. Out-of-date or irrelevant experiences are at best slightly helpful and at worst dangerously misleading. "All else being equal, seek drivers who know what they're doing," says Anthony. "One who is just learning the ropes of a market that's filled with experts can end up languishing in the first mile."

    Anthony uses the example of a product-focused Fortune 100 company that wanted to launch a service business: the internal project team grew to nearly 100 people. But no team member had ever started a business, and none had relevant service industry experience. The effort "ran into wall after wall." He contrasts this with Procter & Gamble, which successfully launched multiple franchise businesses by hiring or acquiring outside expertise.

What other characteristics improve the chance of steering innovation through its first mile?

  • Discovery skills help the organization address uncertainty as it tries to bring a new idea to market -- e.g., skills like questioning, experimenting, observing, and associational thinking.
  • Detail orientation is critical to managing the dozens of moving pieces in every innovation experiment -- insufficient attention to detail always leads to missed opportunities.
  • Comfort with micro-course corrections will steady the organization as it runs into challenges that could not have been predicted at the outset.
  • Natural curiosity and an eye for the unexpected can help the organization find lessons in first-mile challenges, and potentially tear things apart and rebuild where necessary.

"Because the world is changing so fast, over-reliance on securing today's success can easily light the fuse of tomorrow's strategic failure," says Anthony. "Many of today's corporate leaders didn't grow up in this kind of environment, and they didn't develop the coping skills to handle this pace of change. But executives with right traits and skills won't get tunnel vision, and they won't get stuck. So organizations need to make sure they have the right mix of leaders -- those who can best bring innovations to market and those who grow and optimize today's business."

Where should organizations and innovators look for talented first-mile operators?

  • Looking outside: According to Anthony, outside experts may be the first, best option. "Companies with a promote-from-within culture often believe that they can solve any problem. And if given enough time, they may be able to work out the intricacies of a new business model. But bringing in an outside expert who already knows the industry or model can help to minimize time spent going down blind alleys."

  • Looking inside: "Finding the right talent inside an organization can be challenging," says Anthony. But if the organization is committed to using internal resources, he recommends starting the search by looking for people who had roles featuring high degrees of uncertainty -- e.g., launching a new product or entering a new geography. Organizations can also look to their own fringes, where they might find employees who are languishing because their natural inclination to work on discovery projects is being stifled in more execution-oriented role.

"Recognize too that critical first-mile skills and abilities can improve with conscious practice," says Anthony. "Companies that want to cultivate innovation talent need to build specific capabilities around learning, giving people a chance to work on a number of different projects."

To arrange a conversation with Scott D. Anthony of Innosight, and/or receive a copy of The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas into the Market, contact Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller of Sommerfield Communications at 212-255-8386 or katarina@

Scott D. Anthony is the Managing Partner of Innosight. Based in the firm's Singapore office, he leads its expansion into the Asia-Pacific region as well as its venture capital activities (Innosight Ventures). He has worked with clients ranging from national governments to companies in industries as diverse as healthcare, telecommunications, consumer products and software. He is the author of The Little Black Book of Innovation (Harvard Business Review Press, January 2012) and The Silver Lining (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009). He is the co-author of Seeing What's Next (Harvard Business Review Press, 2004) and The Innovator's Guide to Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, 2008).

About Innosight
Innosight is a strategy and innovation consulting firm that helps organizations navigate disruptive change and manage strategic transformation. We work with enterprise leaders to identify new growth opportunities, accelerate innovation initiatives, and build capabilities. Innosight is based in Lexington, MA, with offices in Singapore and Lausanne, Switzerland.

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