Business mentoring - does it add value to innovation?

May 2011

Steve Burrows FBCS CITP

Business mentoring - man and woman talkingInnovation starts with an idea - an obvious and trite statement. The idea often comes from a person who has seen a gap in current offerings because they are not close to the solutions currently offered in the marketplace. In short they are often naive about the sector, industry or technology to which their idea contributes; it is this lack of understanding and preconception that enables them to innovate.

Sometimes the idea comes from a technologist who sees a technical solution to a problem, but as a technologist doesn’t have the business skills to turn it into a commercial product or service. In short, innovation is often the product of people who have an incomplete picture of the world and thereby are not straight-jacketed by conventional wisdom.

In the previous paragraph I transitioned from a person to people - innovation is greater than just the idea, and is most often achieved by a group of people who lever off and build upon each other’s ideas and knowledge to translate idea into innovation. Innovation is rarely the product of a single mind, and therein lies the value of mentoring.

Seeing the bigger picture

A mentor may be a technical, industry or business expert - someone whose greater experience allows them to step back, view a situation or problem in context, and draw upon their previous experience and expertise to help the mentoree to see the bigger picture, evaluate it and draw an appropriate path through it towards their objective.

Facilitating the mentoree to determine their own solutions is key to mentoring, and in doing so the mentor aids the development of idea through to innovation, and provides a rounder, more complete view of the world to complement the narrower perspective of the innovator(s). Clearly mentoring can add value to innovation.

A while back I was asked to be business mentor to the CEO of a software startup; it possessed revolutionary software technology, patented and protected, with every apparent prospect of success. I stepped back and started asking questions about how customers would install it, configure it, interface to it, and quickly found that these matters hadn’t been addressed.

The innovators had a kernel, a software engine, of great value - but the only people who could deploy and use it were themselves.

As a technology it was wonderful, as a saleable product it was a non-starter, requiring significant funding and many man-years of development before it would be ready to enter the market. As the business mentor it was my unfortunate job to point out these realities to the CEO, and in doing so I prevented the venture from failing by launching prematurely.

A business acquaintance got involved with, and invested in, a start-up company developing ultra-small jet engines. The engineers who founded the company had solved a construction problem which eluded Rolls-Royce and other jet engine manufacturers - they had wonderful and unique technology.

But what to do with ultra-small jet engines? Perhaps propel miniature aircraft such as ‘drones’ - unmanned aerial vehicles, hardly a large commercial market sufficient to justify the development and manufacture of small cheap jets. Horsepower for horsepower, jets are much smaller, lighter and cheaper than internal combustion engines.

My acquaintance had the inspiration of using the miniature jets to power electricity generators - for use as range extenders in electric hybrid cars and for portable generators to be used in emergencies and backup installations.

You may have seen these jets pictured in the back of the Jaguar C-X75 concept car this year. Thanks to the lateral thinking of my acquaintance the technology innovation of the miniature jet engine has found commercial applications, customers, and major corporate investors - the prerequisites for success.

The role of the business mentor is to aid the innovator in achieving the endgame - not just an innovative product, but a product which people want to sell, people want to buy, can be marketed, made, distributed, sold and supported at a profit.

History is littered with technology-based innovations that failed - the Sinclair C5, the Double-sided Cricket Bat, Google Buzz, Betamax, Ionographic Printers and in most cases the cause of failure was not the technology but the commercial realities of the world into which it would be delivered and deployed.

The world rarely buys into innovation for innovation’s sake, for innovation to be accepted and adopted it must be commercially successful. This is where the business mentor comes into the picture.

Steve Burrows is a Chartered Fellow of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, and also holds the Chartered Director award from the Institute of Directors. He is a director of several small businesses including his consultancy, SBA, and does some mentoring because he finds it a stimulating and rewarding way to support innovation.

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