Innovation roles – New Kids on the Block?

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Below some thoughts from my friend and colleague Anna Trifilova and myself on what new roles might emerge in the field of innovation, based on some workshops we ran on ‘The Future of Innovation“.

There are probably not many organisations, commercial or otherwise, who will reply “No!” to the question “Is innovation important to your organisation?” Most will even go as far as to say that innovation is critical to the future of their organisation.

If this is so, then is it not fair to assume that there will roles and responsibilities allocated to  innovation to ensure the future will happen? (Not to forget the allocation of dedicated resources…).  Who in your organisation ensures that innovation does happen?

If you argue that innovation is the responsibility of everyone in an organisation we could only agree – yet thinking of most organisations you are familiar with, is that a daily experienced reality?

Probably not.

And there are solid reasons for it: some of us like exploring, experimenting and changing things, others are more comfortable with preserving the status quo.  Indeed, there will not be many in the realm of innovation who are not familiar with the challenges that creating an ambidextrous organisation poses, an organisation that does equally well with operational excellence as it does with innovation excellence.  Markides & Geroski have captured it quite well in the following quote from their 2003 article ‘The two cultures of corporate strategy’:

“The skills, mindsets and competencies needed for discovery and innovation are not only different from those needed for mass market optimisation, they conflict…”

Indeed, much has been written about the fact that ‘operational excellence’ and ‘innovation excellence’ thrive under different, more often than not opposing, conditions – the Table to the right list but a few.

Let’s come back to the question of who is responsible for innovation in your organisation – or perhaps, who is officially responsible for innovation – and indeed ask some more: 

  • Have specific roles been created, other than adding ‘Innovation’ to the traditional roles of ‘Manager’, ‘Leader’, or ‘Director’? 
  • Have they been specially trained for their innovation role?
  • Have new roles been shaped and created, acknowledging the fact that operational and innovation excellence do indeed need some different skill and mindsets to support them?
  • And perhaps most importantly, is new and different meaning, functionality and responsibility associated with such new roles?

How about creating some truly new roles that might help create, develop and maintain a culture of innovation?  Below just a few suggestions

Chief Irritation Officer – not many feel comfortable asking ‘silly’, ‘awkward’ or ‘criticising’ questions. However, such questions are often the starting point for innovation.  Having someone whose responsibility it is might not only ensure such important questions are asked but might also encourage others.  

Organisational Destruction Officer – we know that the propensity of the many to like holding on to the status quo is one of the biggest challenges for the innovator.  So how about dedicating someone to identifying and breaking up rigid structures, processes, and ways of doing things?  In innovation the ability to let go are as important as the ability to create something new – has not Schumpeter declared ‘creative destruction’ to be an essential part of innovation? 

Keeper of the Essence – the creator(s) of an idea do not always accompany it on its journey from conception to realisation and dissemination, leading to too many ideas that start radical and very different being reduced, step by step, to something insignificant and incremental.  It is the role of the Keeper of the Essence to ensure that this does not happen.

If the Keeper of the Essence ensures radical stays radical, it would be the role of the Innovation Conversation Officer to ensure that the innovation pipeline stays healthy. Too many organisations claim that innovation is key for success and future of their organisation yet innovation is also often the first battalion to fall in the face of short term threats. More often than not the scales are skewed against innovation which is why innovation needs special protection. 

If these roles might be useful inside the organisation, there are also roles at the interface.

For example, as most organisations create more idea than they can follow-up – or ideas might just not be aligned with the organisation’s vision – a Second-hand Idea Sales Person might come in handy.  They could ‘buy’ ideas from one organisation and sell them to another. 

As all know that innovation happens when connecting different bodies of knowledge.  The Innovation Connection Officer’s role – at the organisational, regional, national or global level – would look for cross-fertilisation, transfer and collaboration potential across departments, business units, organisations and even. 

Another innovation challenge to organisation’s is being taken unawares of something that is developing at the edge of their corporate vision, the dreaded disruptive innovation.  How about establishing an Innovation Met Office which prepare ‘innovation weather forecast’ to prepare an organisation; for example, for ‘innovation rain’ from the west coast or ‘innovation tsunami’ coming from the east. Innovation Met Officers would take a global look, across industries and nations. They could inform organisation about changes in innovation climate and bring global innovation news around product, process, service and business model innovation. 

And finally, as innovating without consideration of all three aspects of the Triple Bottom Line is becoming increasingly irresponsible yet not spreading fast enough, perhaps we also need Sustainable Innovation Accelerators.  Their responsibility is to support organisations on their journey to ensure that activities and decisions are measured against their impact on people and planet, as well as profit.  Part of their role is to educate organisations how they can benefit by adhering to – or even exceeding – new legislation and embrace  new tools and measurements to combat negative implications and side effects of the organisation’s activities.

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