Are you an Explorer, a Pioneer, or a Settler?

It’s common knowledge that most startups – in fact, most “new ideas” – never make it to full realization. To some degree, this low batting average is just part of the process of experimentation, trial and error, and the ups and downs of the marketplace. Sometimes, the product plan is just wrong – sometimes the execution is poor – sometimes a competitor gets there first. But the single biggest failure point boils down to the simple idea that you need the right leader(s) and the right team for the phase that the company is in. More importantly, that leadership and the supporting team must evolve dramatically over the lifecycle of a new venture, either through personal development or actual new people/positions.

One of my compatriots at Microsoft, Rick Thompson, espoused a people theory that focused on having a team of pioneers and a team of settlers. His point was that the different stages of innovation required different skills, and by extension, different people. It’s easy to think about the iconic start-up leaders – Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Page/Brin, Zuckerberg, etc., and they’ve played an essential role in driving new ideas. But the “People of Innovation” is more nuanced than just finding brilliant, maniacally focused leaders – in fact, it is about finding the right team of leaders for the right stage of development.

So with due credit to Rick, I want to expand on his thesis and argue that there are three waves of skills required to take an idea from “creation” all the way to full-blown success. If your goal is to “innovate,” you need to have the right people focused on the right stage of development – and ensure that you know how to transition between those phases. And if you are the leader of that idea, you need to change as it develops or find someone to take the steering wheel at the right time.

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