How To Find Champions Of Innovation Among Your Ranks

 Andy Zynga .FAST COMPANY. September 17, 2012

Companies today invest more than ever in innovation and OI (open innovation) to be first to market and advance their goals. When they start to build OI programs the challenge remains how to select the right leaders to spearhead them. The search for an innovation champion often begins internally, with a search for someone who is a confident leader comfortable working in an unstructured environment, capable of thinking creatively and a genuinely good listener. A tall order indeed!

This person often has the vision to operate outside the company’s traditional business structure, to partner in unstructured environments, and the urgency to drive outcomes–whatever it takes. Often freewheeling and individualistic, these are the right people to launch one-off successes, but not necessarily the right people to fuel and manage an ongoing, repeatable innovation program.

For example, we worked on a program with a medical device company and it became clear that they would not be able to scale their innovation successes by relying on the successful individual performers in their R&D teams. While these individuals were visionary in the context of their subject matter expertise, they were not very effective at engaging and motivating other innovation teams or in obtaining the broad company support required to take their initiatives to broader successful outcomes.

Creating an innovation program and having it flourish beyond one well-suited champion with one set of skills typically necessitates a team to kick it off and make it soar. These teams need the energy and can-do approach of the earlier initiators, but cloning themselves does not embed the organization with the attributes and skills that build long-term, sustainable, collaborative innovation.

As more companies over the years have taken a real interest in investing in innovation, we worked to develop a methodology that would be effective and repeatable for building successful innovation teams.

We practiced what we preached, so to speak–as I often say “going beyond our four walls” to find the missing piece we needed to build a model that would help companies select leaders to drive and develop innovation cultures from the inside out. We decided to partner with a great company with expertise that complemented our own, CALIPER, a human capital management company that, for the past 50 years, has helped more than 28,000 companies in 13 countries select and develop top performers.

Together, we co-developed a customized and scientifically sound model to build out teams that would be well positioned to grow OI programs and innovation-driven business cultures. The specialized strengths required for managing innovation teams range from being comfortable reaching into the outside world for new solutions, to being able to help groups of intelligent, independent, and strong-minded individuals to work more collaboratively.

We found there are actually two key roles needed in an OI team–the visionary and the implementer. Knowing this, we developed two Collaborative Innovation Profiles for Innovation Leaders and Project Managers.

The profiles surface key differences between these two roles. For instance, Innovation Leaders are visionary, strong communicators, and comfortable with risks. Project Managers are skilled in keeping innovation teams on task, with a sensitivity to organizational needs and goals, and strong attention to detail. Their teams are enhanced by individuals with diverse backgrounds and qualities, from dreamers who push everyone’s thinking “to the edge,” to experts who know what it takes to accomplish specific outcomes. The combined traits build sustainable innovation because the leaders bring fresh blue-sky thinking and the project managers create accountability to ensure a stream of outcomes.

Here is a quick, high-level snapshot of traits that each of the leadership profiles have, to be referenced in building effective innovation leadership teams:

Innovation Leaders:

•Create & Communicate Collaborative Innovation Vision

•Innovation & Creativity

•Analytical Thinking

•Leading Change

•Organizational Awareness

•Strategic Partnering

Project Managers:

•Planning & Organizing

•Quality Orientation

•Innovation & Creativity

•Analytical Thinking

•Business Acumen


•Team Leadership
Innovation is forward-looking by nature. On the surface, selecting the right team to lead innovation in your organization may seem to require a simple leap of faith in selecting inspirational leaders to make it happen. But this isn’t true.

Personality profiling, and knowing what management practices and organizational structures spark innovative thinking and action, is the not-so magic combination that delivers results and value.

Be cautious, though–a great match for the role of the “visionary” is not a great match for that of the “implementer.” And be aware of the traits that can become the demise of either role:

Innovation Leaders:



Project Managers:



Organizations that succeed do so because these “skunkworks” teams are embedded throughout the organization; they include cross-functional contributions from the organization broadly and are empowered with the freedom, budgets, and tools to operate in parallel structures. Still, finding the key integration points is important to unload projects from the innovation team, and make way for new initiatives.

Innovation is a way of life, a daily challenge, and indeed a thrill for those who are incentivized to think and act fearlessly, knowing the risks (and embracing the rewards) of being the first and the only to cross the boundaries that trailblazers do. With a proven methodology for selecting leaders with qualities that will drive innovation teams forward–rather than in circles–you have a recipe for success on the road to realizing an innovation culture.


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