I was in Boston yesterday to deliver a keynote at Front End of Innovation. I flew in a few days early so that I could spend time getting to know some of the conference participants, explore the scene, and get a general sense of the kinds of innovation-related issues they are dealing with. Many conversations inevitably turned to the topic of the forces that inhibit personal and organizational innovation. I noticed a recurring theme.
There are two kinds of innovators: bucket makers, and bucket fillers. Bucket makers are people who love to develop new concepts, categories, and products. They’re happiest when they are exploring the fringes of their category, and prototyping innovative new solutions to problems. There is a high failure rate for bucket makers, but the excitement of creating something brand new is what drives them. They are product innovators, and can’t stand to do the same thing over and over.
Bucket fillers, on the other hand, are process innovators. They love filling the buckets that others have made in new and creative ways. They are happiest when they have firm boundaries within which to do their work. They can take something that already exists and continuously make it fresh, exciting, and valuable.
Here’s the challenge: many people who are bucket makers eventually find themselves in the role of bucket filler. They develop an elegant new solution, but then they find that they are responsible for maintaining it, keeping it fresh, and continuously filling it. They get bored and frustrated, because deep down they crave the opportunity to go create something completely new.
Similarly, many bucket fillers are pushed out to the fringes where they are less effective and forced to deal with excess uncertainty and ill-defined boundaries. They may find that they are less effective until given specific edges within which to do their work. The innovate best with defined boundaries.
It’s important to understand which kind of innovator you are, and to try to align your role and activities (or those of your team) accordingly. It might be worth a conversation with your peers to determine who is most comfortable pushing boundaries and who is most comfortable making the territory that’s already been defined tremendously valuable.
While there are never perfectly neat boundaries for these innovator types, and no perfect roles, understanding them can help you better align your focus, time, and energy with the activities that will help you provide the most value.