In 1905, the German microbiologist Robert Koch won a Nobel Prize in medicine for discovering the effect of bacteria in infectious diseases. The famous research physician and fellow Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich described Koch this way:
He was deeply engrossed in problems which the foremost scientists had struggled in vain to solve. By astute and unflagging application, he was able to provide answers so authoritative as to earn him the admiration and unqualified respect of his contemporaries. And perhaps it was propitious that his genius and energy were given free rein to pursue his trailblazing ideas, undisturbed and unimpeded—a genius and an energy that in so an exceptional a way combined to form his personality.
As Ehrlich well knew, exceptionally creative people like Koch reach incredible breakthroughs for the very reason that they don’t thrive in an industrial environment. They need to be “undisturbed and unimpeded” in order to do what they do.
That, of course, poses a challenge for organizations that can’t give complete “free rein” to their best minds but still want to get the most out of them. So what can companies do?
Exceptionally creative people can make enormous contributions if you can only bridge their ideas with the creation of commercial value. While they’re typically great at discovering entirely new ways of delivering results, creative thinkers are rarely capable of bringing them to practical ends without the proper support. If you mismanage them, by failing to offer the right means of directing their creative thinking, they can actually become destructive critics, voicing unpopular opinions.
Individuals who create breakthrough ideas challenge what’s considered common understanding or even common sense. Almost by deﬁnition, they will go against the grain of the existing culture.
For companies, it starts with recognizing that these extremely valuable individuals are so rare that you can’t depend on their presence alone for your long-term success. One key challenge in managing innovation is learning to beneﬁt not only from the most creative individuals in your organization but also from others—those who might be less gifted but are still creative thinkers in their own right and committed to the company’s goals.
The need to manage extraordinary people is only the start. Transforming their ideas into commercial value can be the bigger challenge, and certainly the costliest and riskiest one.
Around the same time that Koch and Ehrlich were pioneering their discoveries in pathology, another German scientist, the chemist Fritz Haber, was inventing a method for producing ammonia commercially, which he completed in 1909. Ammonia is the basis of more than half the fertilizer produced in the world as well as of gunpowder, and until Haber’s breakthrough, producing it was one of the greatest challenges of the time.
The large German chemical company BASF acquired the rights to Haber’s invention, and it soon discovered that making commercial ammonia was much harder than anticipated. It took another level of engineering genius to build a viable factory. As the historian Fritz Stern recounts:
It took several years and the ingenious work of Carl Bosch, chief BASF chemist and engineer, and . . . the collaboration of Krupp and other firms before a BASF factory for the commercial production of ammonia was erected in 1913 . . . [It was] perhaps the most difficult and brilliant feat of chemical engineering ever achieved. Carl Bosch shared the Nobel Prize for this work in 1931.
BASF’s experience illustrates the hard work of developing important technology solutions from concept to product. Needless to say, deciding when and how to undertake such massively risky investments is a key aspect of innovation management, long after creative thinkers come up with the initial stroke of inspiration.
Finally, companies also have to consider the wisdom of investing in an existing product to preserve its market share, weighing it against the danger of sticking too long with an aging product line. You need to decide what portion of corporate resources to reserve for new product development as opposed to incremental improvements in current offerings.
And there’s yet another aspect to the process: Innovation management calls for sensitivity to human needs and motivations as well as a full understanding of corporate capabilities and goals. Figuring out how to connect the two is the precursor to success—and it starts with your most creative people.
This article is adapted from If You Really Want to Change the World: A Guide to Creating, Building, and Sustaining Breakthrough Ventures by Henry Kressel and Norman Winarsky. It is reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press.