How to effectively manage innovators

by L&D21 Jun 2016
Innovators represent “a highly valued workforce”, said Sara Perry, assistant professor of management at Baylor's Hankamer School of Business.

And leaders who understand how to manage their innovators commitment to both their organisations and professions may be the most successful at motivating and retaining them, according to Perry’s latest research.

Perry is the lead author of the study Managing the Innovators: Organisational and Professional Commitment Among Scientists and Engineers.

The study identifies highly innovative individuals as "typically higher performers (who) are rated as more creative and proactive by their supervisors than their less-innovatively oriented peers".

It involved researchers surveying 255 academic science and engineering professionals working in 22 National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Engineering Research Centres.

The first key finding of the study was that innovators can be highly committed to both their organisations and their professions, especially when they understand their role in the organisation's success.

"The strongest positive relationship between innovation orientation and organisational commitment emerged among researchers who perceived high role significance and worked in highly productive organisations," the researchers said.

This high commitment to both organisation and profession occurred most among the "senior ranks," including associate and full professors in academia.

"These more senior ranks were not as likely to report extreme levels of just one form of commitment or low levels of both forms of commitment, but rather they were generally high to moderate in both, suggesting they tend to direct loyalty to both the organisation and the profession," according to the study.

The second key finding was that highly innovative people are more committed to their organisations and less so to their professions when those organisations are performing well, and the innovators know that their work contributes to that success.

Researchers gauged success by looking at organisations' archived annual reports for two years prior to the survey.

"When the organisation successfully meets its goals and managers communicate effectively about individual contributions to that success, loyalty from highly innovative researchers may shift toward that organisation, and potentially away from the profession," the researchers said.

However, when organisational success was not as high, professional commitment was stronger than organisational commitment.

Perry added that her team saw opportunities for managers to take steps to bring the "allegiance" balance back toward the organisation.

"As leaders in research organisations try to capitalise on the innovative tendencies of their employees, they may wish to design policies and procedures that support preferences for creative, out-of-the-box work styles," the researchers added.

The study suggests the following to keep innovators happy:
  • Making sure the innovators know that their personal goals align with organisational goals.
  • Emphasising small wins and victories, and simulating organisational success in other ways.
  • Protecting innovators from bureaucracy.
The research is published in the journal Research Policy.

Related stories:

Why staff development is ‘integral to innovation’ 

Leadership is the top priority in Southeast Asia: Deloitte