Are you expecting your engineers to cover both innovation and execution tasks? Are you in fact leaving a lot of potential success on the table?
I used to believe that a single point of accountability from beginning to end of a project was ideal. My confidence was shaken however after seeing projects that either failed to thoroughly execute or that failed to deeply address the design challenge. A number of years ago we switched our philosophy to one of specialist archetypes and it’s been working extremely well. I can now say with some confidence that the most productive people are specialists working where their brains are wired to be. In addition to technical skills there are personality archetypes which are equally if not more important to get right.
Profile of an Innovator
The people who are the best at innovation will blow your socks off with ideas. Innovators appear flighty to executors. They can twist problems around in their minds and synthesize so fast everybody around them seems to be standing still. They can keep one possible solution and the logical reasons for it in their minds while they go off exploring in a completely different and possibly contradictory direction. They are unphased by brand new major constraints and are comfortable with trading off risks. They move like the wind and love to try new things like immersing themselves in unfamiliar environments. They challenge assumptions. They are much better at starting projects then finishing them. Do you recognize this person in your organization?
On the downside when they step into detailed implementation they tend not to get the details right. While they do an amazing job of keeping the design intent intact through many real world tradeoffs they have a hard time getting themselves to do the seemingly unproductive work of keeping everything on track. Following processes can seem bureaucratic to them. Often the schedule doesn’t seem as important to them as getting the product right. They forget to order components in time. They don’t test as thoroughly as they need to. The result is a longer and more expensive implementation phase than necessary and a product that may have issues in the field.
Often early stage companies are heavily populated with innovators. To take the company to the next stage they need to be complemented either internally or externally with executors.
Profile of an Executor
Executors appear dull to innovators. They are very aware of the many details that need to be right for the whole project to come off. They are organized and good at prioritizing. They get frustrated when a project changes direction mid-stream due to lack of planning and foresight. They prepare for things. They finish projects and make sure the right reports are filed in the right places so the next person can find them. They do thorough verification.
Executors like to solve problems in innovative ways too. To an executor an innovative solution looks like a clever way to trade off tolerances or picking a better material or optimizing the programming language or database structure. The tradeoffs are more constrained than what pure innovators do. Executors like to be given clear goals and boundaries. They are not likely to challenge whether the underlying assumptions are correct or to refocus the problem. They are not the right people to tackle a brand new opportunity.
Over time as companies mature and the engineering challenges become more incremental the ranks tend to fill up with executors and sustainers. (Sustainers are another group again, but that’s a post for another day.) Then one day they are asked to create the next generation platform. Hopefully at that point they have the insight to realize they need innovators again. (Or maybe they could get some benefit by hiring a product development company…)
In summary, I don’t believe you can do innovative product development without the right complement of innovators and implementors at the right times. The innovators need to develop the vision, explore the options and trade-offs and prove the concepts. Then the executors need to get to work to flesh that vision out and make it come to life in a reliable well implemented well tested product. While both groups can step outside their expertise neither one can in fact do a world class job there. They may or may not have insight into their strengths and weaknesses. Could your organization benefit by complementary resources?
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