10 reflections from a career in innovation

I was recently asked to speak at an event to Birkbeck (University of London) Innovation Management students and alumni about careers in innovation. You can see the video of the full talk below and a synopsis of the main points covered below.

As I kid I wanted to be, amongst other things, a LEGO designer, an architect, a scientist, an astronaut, a musician, an inventor and a philosopher! And I’ve gone on to dabble in a few of those things but ended up doing new things that I hadn’t originally anticipated. The common thread across all of them is innovation in it’s broadest sense. Trying to make the world a better place, usually with a combination of optimism, enthusiasm and technology.

And as much as I’m enjoying the challenge and the thrill of growing 100%Open, I’m also pretty sure I’ll make at least 2 or 3 big changes work wise over the next few decades and look forward to what those new experiences can teach me. In the meantime here are a few reflections which I’ve learned from an almost 20 years working in innovation:

  1. Everybody says they want innovation but few people really mean it Often people want the benefits of innovation without being prepared to take any risks. And sometimes the more people talk about innovation, it’s a sign that not much is actually going on.
  2. Innovation is a vocation and seldom a career choice – Innovation careers tend to be for the insatiably curious and impatient and it’s either a springboard to imminent greatness and fame or else the last resting place for square pegs in round holes.
  3. Innovation is always everybody’s job – Therefore a career in innovation is primarily about facilitating other people to contribute, not about being the most creative or inventive person in the room. Listening & empathy are crucial skills, and often more so than deep technical skills.
  4. Everybody is an entrepreneur No organisation or government is going to take care of you until retirement, so what ever you do you need to be entrepreneurial as soon as possible. Launch early, get feedback, improve the pitch, repeat. As Esther Dyson says (and Shakira!) “Always make new mistakes”.
  5. Be T-shaped – Get a diversity of experience – so long as you are still learning, it’s all useful eventually. So you have a depth of experience in one field but a bredth of experience across many fields, so you can talk to the accountants and the engineers and the marketeers in a language that they would understand.
  6. Be known for something interesting – I’ve come to the conclusion that 98% of business development is people just remembering you exist and you might be able to help them. Once upon a time for me it was ultrasonic imaging then it was project management, and for the last decade it’s been open innovation.
  7. Innovation is all about making new connections – Look for new and interesting links between people and ideas. Always be early for any meeting (you’ll learn more) and always be the most enthusiastic person in the room (if you don’t care then why should anybody else).
  8. Learn by doing – Whether it’s setting up a company or going for a new job, I’d always encourage people to go for it and give it a go. If it doesn’t work out, and often it won’t, that’s ok. Learn from it and move on, and never burn your bridges.
  9. Find a mentor – Find people you respect and can learn from and buy them a coffee. Ask them for recommendations for books or interesting events to attend, and loose yourself following the cool kids on social media, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. But be conscious of their time and show your gratitude and try to find ways to return the favour eventually or at least pay it forward.
  10. Build and nurture your network – I’ve done a lot of different jobs over the years and have built up quite a fragmented network in different sectors and geographies. It’s taken me a long time to appreciate it but it’s now the most valuable asset I have as an individual or as an organisation.

I hope that’s a helpful and interesting list. And I’d be interested in any other reflections or advice from any readers of this blog about their experiences of working in and around innovation.


  1. Hi Roland,
    Enlightening and reassuring. I agree that people sometimes use the word ‘innovation’ as a smokescreen for nothing going on or to set an impression of positivity and progress. In my experience, many more people find the word scary; they feel they have to invent something. As you know, the key is facilitating in a way that unlocks ideas in a ‘safe’ environment and then developing those ideas via evaluation and early testing. Thanks for sharing.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.