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Making Everyone an Innovation Champion

Posted on the 30 May 2013 by Stephendeangelis @EnterraCEO

Drew Boyd, a professor of marketing and innovation at the University of Cincinnati, believes that if your organization has an innovation champion you should kill him or her. Not literally, of course. He means if you have a position with innovation in the title, that position should done away with. ["Kill Your Innovation Champion," Psychology Today, 13 May 2013] He believes that such positions stifle rather than foster innovation. "Assigning a champion lets everyone off the hook, he writes. "Why innovate when we have our 'champion' to do it?" He continues:

Innovation champion clear 02"A study by the Association of Innovation Managers found that when companies assign innovation champions and establish separate funding, it threatens the R&D and the commercial departments. 'This kind of sponsorship opens the door for subtle forms of sabotage if the established business units believe that the innovation funding is inhibiting their ability to accomplish short-term objectives and take care of current customers. Without involvement, the commercial arm of an organization can also claim no responsibility for success or be blamed for failure.'"

A number of organizations have established a position titled something like "Chief Innovation Officer," but Boyd claims that people don't stay in those positions very long. He explains:

"If you won't kill your champion, no worry - they will go away on their own. The study also looked at what puts innovation managers at risk. Of the 15 innovation champions in the study, 10 left their organizations and became consultants, 4 joined smaller or start-up companies, and 1 retired. None returned to a Fortune 500 company."

Frankly, there is nothing wrong with the concept of innovation champions per se. Good ideas need people to push them from concept to reality. Rather than having a single "champion," most pundits recommend empowering everyone with the opportunity to become a champion. Ron Ashkenas, a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting, believes "the reality is that unless they're in research or product development, most people in organizations don't think of themselves as innovators." ["Innovation Is Everyone's Job," HBR Blog Network, 6 December 2011] He claims that employees are often discouraged from being innovative. "Many managers discourage their people from inventing new ways of doing things," he writes, "pushing them instead to follow procedures and stay within established guidelines." Another contributing factor, he asserts, is that too often employees think of innovation only in terms of "new products, services, or technology." That perception, he writes, "is problematic." He continues:

"Apple's success has been fueled not only by new products, but also by innovative approaches to packaging, retail sales, customer access, and partner agreements. Similarly, Toyota's growth has come as much from innovations in manufacturing, inventory control, and management systems as it has from new automobiles."

For Ashkenas, the bottom line is:

"Great organizations don't depend on a small number of exclusive people to come up with innovations. Instead they create a culture in which every employee is encouraged and empowered to innovate — whether it's in processes, products, or services. This leads not only to new customer offerings but also better margins, stickier customer relationships, and stronger partnerships with other firms. Moreover it leverages the brains and talents of thousands of people, any one of whom might generate either an incremental innovation or a breakthrough idea."

Tim Huebsch agrees with Ashkenas. "We often look right past our best sources of innovation," he states, "our own employees and everyone else around them. It isn't that we need to find someone else to do it but instead it needs to be part of everyone's job. Each and every person has ideas of how we can do things better. Some ideas are small and won’t have a huge impact on the organization themselves, but by finding ways to encourage, support and implement these small ideas builds a foundation that will foster innovative thought throughout an organization. As employees see their voices are heard and continue to be encouraged to come forward with ideas, it is amazing to see the energy, creativity and passion that is so easily ignited." ["Innovation — It isn’t someone else’s job; It is everyone’s job," Leadership and Community, 22 April 2013] Admittedly, it is easier to assert that innovation is everyone's responsibility than it is to create the environment, culture, and structure that make it a reality.

Ron Thomas, a human resources officer, believes that the first step in making everyone an innovation champion is cultivating better listening skills in executives. ["Best Ideas? They Can Come From Anyone – IF You’re Willing to Listen," TLNT, 5 November 2012] He's correct. If employees know that their ideas are going to fall on deaf ears, there is no reason to speak up. Thomas believes there are three dynamics that foster an innovative environment. They are:

  • Having an organization that creates an environment where everyone brings value and feels comfortable in being heard;
  • Having employees who believe that their voices can be heard;
  • Having leadership that will acknowledge and give credit to their employees.

Personally, I agree with Thomas that employees deserve to be recognized for their contributions. Boyd, however, doesn't agree. He believes that giving credit for good ideas is a bad idea. He bluntly writes, "Don't give credit for good ideas." He explains why:

"Tanya Menon from the University of Chicago describes the paradox of an external idea being viewed as 'tempting' while the exact same idea, coming from an internal source, is considered 'tainted.'

'In a business era that celebrates anything creative, novel, or that demonstrates leadership, "borrowing" or "copying" knowledge from internal colleagues is often not a career-enhancing strategy. Employees may rightly fear that acknowledging the superiority of an internal rival's ideas would display deference and undermine their own status. By contrast, the act of incorporating ideas from outside firms is not seen as merely copying, but rather as vigilance, benchmarking, and stealing the thunder of a competitor. An external threat inflames fears about group survival, but does not elicit direct and personal threats to one's competence or organizational status. As a result, learning from an outside competitor can be much less psychologically painful than learning from a colleague who is a direct rival for promotions and other rewards.'"

It seems to me that Boyd and Menon are trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are actually two problems discussed. The first is jealously. Only a change in culture can correct that problem. The second problem described is failing to give the same credit to employees for their good ideas that executives give to ideas that come from outside the organization. It's the opposite of the "not invented here" paradigm that has traditionally plagued large companies. The solution to the second problem is, in fact, to acknowledge and give credit to employees just like Thomas suggests.

Perry Rotella, a senior vice president and chief information officer at Verisk Analytics, accepts the notion that innovation is everyone's job but goes a step further. He believes that employees should be encouraged to become innovation leaders (i.e., innovation champions). ["If Innovation Is Everyone's Job, Why Not Be a Leader?" Forbes, 11 June 2012] That will only happen, he insists, if the right environment is created. That environment, he writes, is one that encourages risk-taking, gives people the time and tools to experiment, and encourages collaboration.

Supporting innovation champions with more than words and back slaps is important. "In order for innovation to flourish in your organization," writes Chuck Ferry, "your innovation champions must be supported through properly structured responsibilities, goals and resources. Otherwise, they will leave to pursue other opportunities, taking their energy and ideas with them." ["Cultivating Innovation Champions," Innovation Management.se, 30 January 2013] Although Ferry doesn't dismiss the notion that innovation is everyone's job, he clearly doesn't believe that everyone can be an innovation champion. He believes that innovations champions share unique characteristics that make them leaders. He cites a book written by Gerard J. Tellis, entitled, Unrelenting Innovation. Tellis identifies four characteristics shared by true innovation champions. They are: Having a vision for the future mass market; being a maverick and dissenter; having the conviction to persist against heavy odds; and, a willingness to take extraordinary risks to bring their idea to fruition (including the ability to instill this trait in their teams).

Whether everyone in your organization is capable of becoming an innovation championship isn't really the point. Leaders will emerge if the right culture and environment exist. While it is important to recognize that good ideas can come from anywhere, those ideas will fall on barren ground if there isn't an innovation champions to push them through to the end. It doesn't require a title or special position to become an innovation champion; but, it does require a bit of courage.


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