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How to Capture Innovative Thinking from High Performers

It seems wherever you turn, people are talking about innovation.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines innovation as “a new idea, method, or device” and innovative as “characterized by, tending to, or introducing innovations.” These are broad definitions so we need to define innovative thinking more closely. For me, innovative thinking is not just a new way of thinking about something; it’s thinking that has the potential to result in a change that improves situations.

People can be innovative thinkers and achieve nothing if the thinking is not harnessed. There needs to be something new and better come from the thinking. In short—outcomes of value.

We know what we want to achieve from innovative thinking, but who do we turn to when we need it?

High performers are natural candidates to be involved in innovation. This is partly due a restlessness with the status quo displayed by most high performers. This is generally combined with a feeling they could be even better at what they do.

These feelings provides the motivation to explore how to achieve the better performance they seek. When working with top performers I have found they think they are a “work in progress” and there is always room for improvement. They genuinely don’t think they are different from others doing the role but have an unquenchable desire to be better at what they do.

We know that if top performers are left to work it out for themselves, they will. This generally results in them; reading widely and receiving email and blog updates on a wide range of topics and networking with other top performers to discover new ways of improving. They then research further into those areas that catch their interest or where they see a connection with what they already do.

One way truly innovative thinking happens is when previously unconnected ideas are combined to achieve a superior outcome. That can happen in isolation, but a far better approach is to bring top performers together—to create synergy through an incubator-style environment.

Sounds easy enough; just connect your top performers and wait for magic to happen….

In essence yes, but as with any incubator, the environment and clear success criteria are crucial to success. The skill is in balancing stimulating, new ideas and being clear about what is required. Providing a specific challenge being faced currently by your business, for the team to solve within a time period, would generate options business leaders may not have the bandwidth to generate.

Top performers will want to be involved as they will see potential to improve their performance. They approach things optimistically, again a general trait of top performers. Getting them together will be easy. Defining clear success criteria and staying focused on those criteria while maintaining the freedom to explore new ideas requires discipline and leadership.

Setting goals and an agreed-upon timetable for milestones/results is crucial.

  • Determine a date for the incubator event.
  • Set a date to review outputs and agree which will be worked on.
  • Set a success or kill deadline—achieve the results by or before the agreed date or fail fast, and direct efforts to something more productive.
  • Prototype and iterate.
  • Develop progress reports on success.
  • Launch, promote, and normalize innovative behavior/processes.

Incubators are not the only way…

Your current top performers achieve amazing results each day. They have already made innovations to their roles, quietly and effectively, to become top performers.

Extracting innovative thinking from your top performers is a great way to unlock hidden potential and find new ways to be successful. Working with top performers on a specific role is another way to capture and distribute innovation across your teams.

As mentioned above, if top performers are left to work it out for themselves, they will. They already know some of the best and most effective ways to perform in the role currently. Clearly those who don’t perform as well in the role would benefit from some of those unique insights.

Identifying the “secret sauce” of top performers in a particular role requires a different approach to the innovation incubator described above. Establishing what top performers do that actually makes the difference requires working with them individually—observing them, questioning to drill down to why they perform certain tasks and what outcomes they strive to reach. Top performers are unconsciously competent. They have internalized what they do to such a degree they need help to unbundle the specific combination of activities that create the secret sauce. Those outcomes combined with why and how top performers achieve them are crucial to understanding and duplicating top performance.

The best of both worlds

Your top performers may be philanthropic enough to want to help others improve their performance but they are also competitive. They are, after all, top performers! To be truly successful will require employing both approaches: raise the general level of performance to the level of the top performers and allow the top performers to drive forward to maintain their and the organization’s competitive advantage.

How can your top performers influence the performance of your organization immediately?

  • What issues are facing your organization that the leadership doesn’t have the bandwidth to tackle currently?
    • Something that needs to be tackled and would drive your organization forward but that is overtaken by higher priority issues.
  • What would be the value to your organization of having that issue resolved now?

Learn more about our innovation and emerging learning strategies here. To discuss these and other methods to identify and duplicate the outcomes achieved by your current top performers, please contact us.

About the Authors

Ian Croft
I have always been fascinated by performance excellence. Obviously, we don’t call it that when we watch our favorite sports team/heroine/hero winning at their sport or while we watch an amazing artistic performance—we just enjoy the moment. For me, that moment is frequently followed by these questions: • How did they do that? • How hard have they worked individually or as a team to be that good? • What do they do that others don’t do that makes them successful? Being a Performance Consultant with GP Strategies allows me to explore those questions with clients on a daily basis. I was born and raised in the UK and moved to the US at the start of 2007. My career started with a UK-based bank where I specialized in commercial banking. It was the chance to help clients build successful businesses that attracted me to commercial banking over the other alternatives on offer. I spent several years working with clients on expansion strategies, restructuring their businesses, and working through the day-to-day challenges of running their businesses. I moved into commercial banking training during 1998 after completing an MBA. That’s when I found my true passion: helping people become the best they can be at what they do. I moved to a global bank during 2000 in a training role and became a Learning and Performance Consultant with responsibility for four of the bank’s businesses in 2003. In this role, I traveled internationally, delivering training and working with the four businesses to solve performance issues. My final role with the global bank was as Head of Commercial Banking for North America. After leaving banking, I became a Solution Architect within the Global Learning Solutions division of a major consultancy firm. This gave me the opportunity to work with diverse clients on learning and performance issues and indulge my passion for helping clients improve the performance of their businesses. I have been with GP Strategies since 2016 and truly love what I do here. Each day brings fresh challenges as I partner with clients to solve performance issues at individual, department, divisional, or organizational levels. I live in Delaware with my wife Elaine and our dog Charlie. I am an avid cyclist and can be found out on the roads of Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Maryland most weekends.

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