Starting a Career in Innovation


Image Credit: The Daily Muse via Daniel McDermott

Lately, I’ve had multiple junior people ask me for advice on how to embark on a career in innovation. I’ve consistently felt my answer was lacking (and can only imagine they did, too). Then again, I’m inclined to believe that traditional career paths are slowly dying, so I was never really sure it was a subject worth advising on. Just look at how dramatically careers have changed in the last 10 years: People move around more and have more professional “side projects,” all while “intraprenuers” have proven corporate ladders aren’t necessarily linear.

All this means that young professionals have access to unprecedented possibilities. So it’s understandable that they’re looking for guidance, especially in something as uncertain as innovation. Yet, as they enter the workforce, their questions are rarely about “which path” to take; rather, most of these new entrants are trying to identify what paths even exist before them.

(Over)Simplifying the Innovation Landscape

So, I’d like to first define innovation. My sense is that most of the people I’m speaking to aren’t even sure what “innovation” actually means. The definition I like to use is “the introduction of the relevant new.” New being what makes it innovative, and relevant being what makes it stick, but also difficult to achieve.

That still leaves room for a very broad list of innovations. It’s no wonder companies find it challenging to decide where to invest their innovation resources. What qualifies is something multiple stakeholders will have an opinion on, and every organization approaches differently as a result. In general, there are two types of innovation: lateral and vertical. Lateral innovation focuses on introducing radically new offerings to an industry, whereas vertical innovation focuses on improving upon the previous version.

The vast majority of innovation dollars actually goes into vertical innovation. Companies are quicker to justify investments in incremental improvements because they’re safer than betting on the unknown. For instance, reaching 50 MPG is a reasonable vertical innovation goal for the automotive industry. The challenge for employees is that vertical innovation benefits greatly from direct experience, which means a career in it is typically limited to a single vertical. After all, it would be difficult to parlay that deep automotive technical skill into helping financial services companies innovate new offerings. Thus from a talent standpoint, expertise in vertical innovation doesn’t scale across industries very well¹.

On the other hand, lateral innovation depends less on having specialized industry knowledge, and in fact, benefits from a fresh perspective. For this reason, it can be more appealing to new professionals seeking a career in the “industry” of innovation because it can offer the reinvention of many different companies or industries. Nike, for instance, entered the consumer electronics space with the launch of its Nike+ FuelBand and its success has since established the company as a leader in wearable technology.

Lateral innovation requires venturing into new territories with limited visibility into the returns (i.e., what makes it “relevant,” not just “new). As such, companies pursuing lateral innovation actively seek outside help. For employees, this is the professional conundrum: is it worth pursuing a career in a field that demands a small percentage of innovation dollars, but opens up many more possible employers and clients? I’m of the mindset that for junior talent, it’s definitely worth it. Not only will opportunities for lateral innovation continue to grow as industries blur, but the mindset of anyone looking for a career in innovation is likely one where having knowledge and experience across a breadth of subject matters is highly appealing.

Developing a Diverse Professional Experience

So what type of early work experience is most relevant for a career in lateral innovation? Bluntly, I think the answer is diversity. When companies are looking for help inventing–or reinventing–their future, they’re likely seeking people with different perspectives. Accumulating those perspectives requires having a career that spans industries and/or roles. That means spending these early career years–gulp–jumping around. The longer you wait, the harder such jumping will become, so why not use these years to learn as many different things as possible?

Of course, this is only possible for those with a skill companies find valuable. Every step of your professional journey should enhance that particular skill.  Many of the people seeking my advice drastically underestimate their need to hone a core expertise. Having many different jobs without developing a specific skill will actually make you less employable later. It’s the difference between hopping from stone to stone to cross a river, and going in circles on a merry-go-round. Designer? Researcher? Writer? All companies can benefit from these types of assets. Identify your core expertise, use it to deliver value to any company, and in exchange, gain varied industry experience. The more industries you work in, the more qualified you’ll be to help invent the radically new– to help companies laterally innovate.

Learn everything you can about an industry as you work in it. Use the exploratory part of your career to get better at your particular craft while adding as many light skills as possible. There’s no better way to make the leap into innovation than being T-shaped. The core of your expertise will be the lens through which you’ll concept and design innovation opportunities.

I guess this was a long way of saying that there’s no clear path into (and through) a career in innovation. But that’s just part of the fun. If that makes you uncomfortable, you probably wouldn’t like the job much anyway. Of course, if you’re taking advice from me, you may be doomed already.

So maybe just read our industry’s sacred text and drop me a line if I can work for you down the road.

¹Some of the best innovators have been able to do this under the guise of “design” but I’m both unqualified and too intimidated to guide someone down that particular path.

This post first appeared on Finch15’s G+ page August 8, 2013.


One thought on “Starting a Career in Innovation

  1. Pingback: A 2013 Innovation Reading List (ish) | Loyal to Optimus

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