Pollinators: The New Breed Of Innovators

Walk into any corporate headquarters these days and you’ll find either a parking lot of empty cubicles or, more happily, a busy office hive filled with temporary hires contracted to work on time/task specific projects may work for days, weeks, or months, depending upon what they have been hired to do.

Whereas taking a short-term gig may have been viewed as a sideways or even downward move once upon a time, today many professionals—and the companies who hire them—are seeing the advantages of an untethered work force that buzzes in and out of companies, moving from project to project, cross-pollinating ideas (and companies) as they go. As a result, this new breed of “pollinators” has become one of the most dynamic and innovative segments of our workforce.

“Companies are either culturally for using external consultants,” says Nicole Ertas, a pollinator living in the Seattle area. “Or they feel it’s demoralizing for their internal culture and prefer to have everything happen internally.”

Like Ertas, Pollinators may have been in “Top 40 Under 40” lists, or recently moved to a new city. They may be young college graduates trying to eke out their place in corporate America. Or they may be experienced mid-level practitioners desiring to opt out of corporate cube culture. Whether their background is in fashion, beverage, health and wellness, financial, consumer packaged goods, manufacturing, sales, technology or elsewhere, they’re carrying a bigger basket of experience in their backpack wherever they go.

“Being an independent consultant allows us invaluable experience,” says Denmark Francisco, a 28-year old in interactive media and digital marketing strategy. Francisco moved recently from Manhattan to Hong Kong for a project, and claims that moving from project to project builds an experience and knowledge base he would not get at a single job. “I get a chance to see what really works in the market,” says Francisco. “There may be variables in a situation,” he adds, “but there are also similarities. We transfer what we know has worked.”

As companies run pell-mell to find innovative ideas for new products, services, and new ways of doing business. Within the bounds of nondisclosure agreements, these Pollinators are helping make organizations use external talent intelligently to be more innovative, more competitive, and less stuck in “this is how we do it here” silos.

“You can’t use external talent to do something an employee is supposed to be doing,” advises Ertas, who has worked on- and off-staff at big brands like S.C. Johnson, Jim Beam, Wrigley, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and others. “Instead, companies hire us short term to solve the problem and then get out.”

Pollinating is a platform that allows people to share and let everybody grow, while extracting the golden honey called ideas.

Does it work?

“Absolutely,” says Mitra Best, who is pioneering innovation as US innovation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. The firm does not have an exact number for outside hires, but the impact is significant. “We bring in catalyst hires to bolster thinking in an area.” One of those hires founded their Health Information Technology practice. “He brought in ways of solving problems that were very different,” says Best.

Being different is not always good for its own sake, but being different can send the rockets of innovation soaring.

“If you put people who think similarly together, the chance of coming up with new ideas keeps diminishing,” says Best. “If you want to accelerate new thinking, you put people from different perspectives together. Apply different filters to the same problem, and you get huge results.”

“The experience is exponential,” agrees pollinator Ertas. “The more brands and situations you’re challenged with, the more you’re going to have in your arsenal on how to handle challenges and opportunities. Unless you have people who have exposure to that breadth, you’re going to be limited in what you consider for innovation. You might be considering line extension, when you should be doing a channel overhaul.”

Pollinators can also help spread the love. Externals are often allowed access to other business units and upper management that regular staffers don’t get, due to internal hierarchies. “We talk to everybody in the company, from to lowest to highest,” says Francisco. “So it helps us understand the various perspectives within the organization. Staffers don’t get that opportunity because they’re stuck in their role or cube all day.” For example, most places treat analytics and creativity separately, marketing is doing one thing and IT is doing another. “We can help bring those disciplines together,” says Francisco.

Another perspective is that brand managers are so immersed in their brand, they see everything through that lens. Pollinators, however, see the world through the lens of the consumer. That consumer has a multitude of needs beyond a single brand: food and beverage needs, fashion, health care and financial problems. When the brand manager is looking through the eyes of the brand, they may get to solutions, but they may not get there as quickly or take that left turn that creates dramatic results.

From outside to inside to outside and back again creates a boisterous dynamic.

Situations, projects, categories, companies, challenges and opportunities are all different. People who are working cross-functionally are going to be accelerators of innovation, thanks to their spectrum of experience. “Whereas the traditional manager may work on three brands over a couple years,” agrees Ertas, “the cross-pollinator works on a dozen or more categories, products, or channels and is exposed to so many challenges, categories, brands/products in different life stages, different channels—sometimes at the same time.”

A Pollinator who has worked both sides of the fence adds, “If a company wants to get best of breed from concept to market,  they can bring in a fabulous innovator, then contract a fabulous executor. Then, finally, someone who is very smart about market tactics and commercialization. Traditionally, companies try to get brand managers to engage in all three functions but, in reality, these are all very different practices.”

But being a Pollinator is not all blue skies. Although they are noticeable (or just notorious) in their luxe eyeglass frames, Starbucks and backpacks, Pollinators are brought in to work quickly. It is a concentrated blend of hard work, long hours, and ultimately high risk. “You’re usually working for C-suite clients,” says a Pollinator. “And at that level, they just want to get the work done.” If you fail, you fail completely.

There’s also the soft tissue stuff about being a stranger in a strange land.  “Not every place is fun to work,” says one person who remains anonymous. “The management, the structure, sometimes the culture is not a good fit for your mindset.”

Outsiders can unwittingly step on toes. “We’re not trained on processes inside the company itself, which can be super challenging,” says one expert. “Sometimes it’s just the paperwork to get things done—estimates and invoicing. How do you fit into their established practices? We don’t have to play the politics.”

Pollinators can also be local. Case in point Ted Souder, head of industry and part of the retail pod at Google. Souder was sent from his Chicago base to Paris, where he gained experience in new markets including Africa and the Middle East. “Paris was extra exciting,” says Souder, “because I didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak French—which is as outside the comfort zone as you can get.”

As a catalyst for global diversity, innovation and community, Google has innovated a program for people to take on new roles in other geographies, so they can expand their skills and bring back ideas from other parts of the world. (In other words, pollinators.)

“I spent a year in Europe and the Middle East and I switched verticals,” says Souder. “That gives me a whole new perspective that others at my level don’t necessarily have. The opportunity now is to bring back what I saw people doing in Europe. I think it’s going make our U.S. team more effective.”

Example? “In the U.S. we tend to be a bit more forward in our approach about selling—more pushy,” says Souder.  “In Europe it’s more about developing relationships—people buy because of the relationship they have with their partner. We can learn from that.”

“Right now we’re in the midst of the acceleration of everything,” says Google retail industry director Julie Krueger. “We have a globally diverse audience, so we need an internal culture that is constantly innovating, learning, sharing. At Google, we are vertically structured into travel, retail, finance, health care. What happens over time is that you can get stuck in your vertical.

“But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn from someone in finance or health. They might have come up with a phenomenal solution—and if everyone doesn’t hear about it, that’s a problem. We have to share best practices internally between geographies. Even with over thirty thousand employees, we’ll eventually become a smaller company because of the relationships that are being developed.”

This, of course, is why we hire new people in ordinary times: to extract their fresh thinking before they get mired in office dogma. But in extraordinary times such as these, the old mantra, “we hire geniuses and fire fools” wears thin. Big can become bland and sometimes it needs a poke.

Mitra Best at PwC agrees. “We have so many areas of expertise, it is very possible that you can come in and not touch any other part of the company,” she says. “One of our missions is to develop initiatives that bring together people from different areas of the firm so they can cross-pollinate.”

When PwC recently acquired two strong consulting firms, instead of allowing headhunters to come pick off their best people in the change cycle, PwC worked hard to integrate the two cultures. “Blending those diverse cultures has made us a more fertile environment,” says Best. “And [adds] more value to our clients.” Which is why they merged in the first place.

The downside of the recent economic layoffs is that that well-trained, experienced individuals have been let loose into the workforce. The upside is that these people are buzzing with knowledge and experience now available to everyone. Their influx is forming a dynamic that is accelerating rapid, positive change. “This is a very volatile time,” says PwC’s Mitra Best. “You can only meet the challenges if you are innovating,”

“If you’re not in it, you’re just reading about it,” concludes Ertas. “You really have to be in it.”