Five mistakes to avoid when managing a disruptive project: 5- Choosing the wrong people

This article is the last part of a series of fives articles on mistakes to avoid when managing a disruptive project, extracted from my new book “A Manager’s Guide to Disruptive Innovation”.

One of the mistakes that companies wishing to develop innovative programs often make is to think only in terms of organization and processes: “how can we do it, how can we organize it”, etc. They forget that, as we have pointed out, innovation is a social process and that the human dimension of this process is paramount. Therefore, an important question arises: who should manage an innovation project?

Normally, managers of human resources recruit on the basis of candidates’ expertise and a history of success. They want someone who can demonstrate leadership or who has a particular expertise. For a new intrapreneurial project, they seek to reduce the risk by hiring someone with a classic profile, that is to say, someone they know well and who has progressed flawlessly and seamlessly within the organization.

In so doing, they may forget that the circumstances surrounding the project are very important. If the project conforms to the current business model of the company, the skills needed are more in the order of execution and compliance with this model. This is the case of a French company that decides to open a subsidiary in Italy. There is indeed an innovation dimension because the company is creating a new entity within an existing entity. The conditions may be rather new, but supply and demand remain roughly the same and, above all, the business model does not change.

mgtdi-cover-25pc-newIf the project is disruptive, it’s a completely different story. Its managers are more likely to be fraught with pivots, dead ends, and back to square ones, which force them to regroup, rethink and reconfigure the business model. In these types of circumstances, recruiting someone who has never been faced with ambiguous, uncertain or blocked situations and is not accustomed to responding in a quick and creative way, is indeed a risk.

Like the Titanic, the project could crash when it meets up with the first obstacle in its path. In effect, the White Star Line chose Captain Smith for the maiden voyage of the Titanic precisely because during his forty-year career, he had never had an accident. An employee who has gone decades without an accident can indeed convey confidence to the company that nothing will happen in the future, but he will have no valuable experience in dealing with a difficult situation. Then when trouble does occur, it is all the more dangerous. This is not a question of competence, but of experience and attitude. So paradoxically, recruiting a “safe” profile for a disruptive project in order to reduce risk of failure actually leads to increasing that risk. Again, we have another unintended consequence of “good management” and what works in sustaining situations leads to failure in disruptive situations.

Therefore, a candidate for disruptive project would not necessarily be someone who was a good student and who succeeded because in a certain Cartesian framework he or she had managed to get all the right answers. Rather, the ideal recruit would be someone who has worked in complicated situations, has experienced failure, is less arrogant because of this experience, and has acquired an ability to live with uncertainty.

The difficulty, of course, is that this rare gem is often not easy to find within an organization. If for decades a company has focused on “talent management”, i.e. recruiting only classic profiles to the detriment of atypical profiles, this is the moment where the company will have to face the music. In this case, the company is obliged to recruit from the outside, which renders the project more fragile because the newcomer does not know the company culture and organization.

The dangers of talent management are vividly discussed in Malcom Gladwell’s The Talent Myth. Read the first part of the series: Trying to go too fast.

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