Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Don’t invest in ideas, invest in people with ideas 17 – rethinking innovation and innovators 3

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on December 20, 2015

This is my seventeenth installment in a series on cultivating and supporting innovation and its potential in a business, by cultivating and supporting the creative and innovative potential and the innovative drive of your employees and managers, and throughout your organization (see HR and Personnel – 2, postings 215 and loosely following for Parts 1-16.)

I began explicitly discussing innovators in Part 15 and Part 16 of this series, dividing them into two porous groups:

Initial catalyst innovators, who come up with disruptively innovative new ideas and who take at least the first steps into developing practical, realized products out of them, and
Follow-through development innovators, who primarily serve to refine and improve, facilitating the turning of those initial ideas with their potential, into realized marketable, profitable sources of value. And these innovators evolve and improve once-disruptively innovative product ideas and approaches to keep them competitively viable too.

And I primarily focused on the first of those categorical types in those two postings. I turn here to more fully consider the second of those groups and how they pick up from where an initial catalyst innovator makes their contributions. And I start this by returning to the story of penicillin, as discussed in Part 16 and with a somewhat startling detail that I noted in passing there:

When this new wonder drug was first brought into clinical use it was phenomenally difficult to produce in significant quantity, and demand for it far outweighed any conceivable availability. The strains of the mold: Penicillium rubens that it was produced from only yielded minute amounts of this drug from a production run and the technology that was available for growing this organism in pure culture form were still fairly primitive, as were methodologies for harvesting the drug itself from the culture medium it was grown in. And this brings me to what I can only refer to as a startling consequence, that came about because this drug was in such short supply and it was found to be so life saving:

• Penicillin is excreted out through the kidneys in the urine of patients who receive it. When this new drug was first produced as a medication, it was so difficult to produce in therapeutic quantities and so rare and difficult to acquire, that literally, any still intact and useful penicillin that a patient peed out was extracted from their urine and reused on them, and on more than one occasion and for a number of these early patients.

If Alexander Fleming deserves credit as the initial catalyst innovator who first developed penicillin as a pharmaceutical, and who through that began the use of antibiotics as infection fighting medications, it was a whole series of follow-through development innovators who made all of this practical, and cost-effective enough for widespread use. If this narrative began and ended with Fleming himself, penicillin itself would still be more a generally unobtainable curiosity and marvel, than a working part of every physician’s pharmacopeia. And few if any other antibiotics would probably have been developed in follow-up to its impetus.

Just focusing here on penicillin itself (and setting aside the search for new and different antibiotics as produced by other species of microbes), it was a vast number of follow-through development innovators who worked as scientists and technicians, who found and cultivated new strains of Penicillium rubens that would produce more of this drug per microbe, and in an ongoing process that has led to strains of that mold that produce more than a thousand times as much penicillin then did the wild type strain that Fleming started with. And these strains are easier to grow, and both in large volumes of medium and at higher concentrations – and not just on the surface of the culture medium in use but throughout its volume, further increasing yields.

• These innovators have successively incrementally improved every step of the production process, starting with improving the organisms that the drug is produced from, through to improving the collection and purification process, and the manufacturing of more stable end-user medications from it with longer shelf lives.

I offer this bullet point as counterpoint to the one immediately preceding it, for the impact that follow-through development innovators have played here, even as they have toiled, and continue to do so in anonymity. The initial catalyst innovators are the ones, if any who gain fame from their accomplishments; the follow-through development innovators who build on what they begin, turn those beginnings into progressively better and better finished products and into entire new industries.

I am planning on discussing the issues of this series from a very explicitly Human Resources perspective, later in it. But in anticipation of that, I take this opportunity to point to the way that these two types of innovator work together and create synergies that can lead to market-defining value for the businesses that they work for. And that, and the need for fostering and developing and supporting these employees and of both types, makes this a quintessential Human Resources responsibility. They: Human Resources, have to be able and willing to actively support and work with the functional areas of their business where innovation can reside, to make sure that it does.

Note in this context that I could just as easily have cited the ongoing flow of activity of both initial catalyst and follow-through development innovators in making Moore’s law hold true for so long in the electronics industry, for integrated circuit development and production. I could, in fact have picked any of a very wide range of industries as sources of working examples here – and in fact any of them that have been advancing and evolving for what they bring to market.

I end this posting with that point. But I will continue its discussion in my next series installment where I will turn to issues of hiring and retention. And this means when looking for potential new employees who hold significant innovative potential. And just as importantly, this means addressing the challenge of identifying employees that a business already has onboard too, who have innovative potential and drive that are being wasted in them for lack of opportunity for them to thrive to the full of their capabilities. And I add in anticipation of that discussion, these are the innovators who are all too likely to slip away from a business before it can even realize the loss that this creates for them. I will at least start discussing all of this in my next series installment.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.


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