4 Roles for Your Innovation Team

Here’s a persistent innovation management question: is it better to have a dedicated team responsible for innovation, or should this responsibility be distributed throughout your entire organisation? The best answer depends on your circumstances. But if you set up a dedicated team, it’s important to consider what role you want them to play. There are four different roles that a dedicated innovation team can fill.

One of the organisations that John and I do quite a bit of work with has a new internal group that’s been set up to try to help facilitate the identification and execution of innovations that will have a longer-term impact on performance. Prior to this, they had been responsible for facilitating all innovation throughout the organisation. In this new configuration, a different group is responsible for helping incremental innovations. The longer-term group, which includes all the people that we’ve been working with over the years is supposed to be looking at “emerging opportunities.”

Over the past few months I’ve been working with them to try to figure out what their business model should be. As we talked things through, we realised that there were really four different roles that they could try to fill. This is what they are, in order of increasing levels of resource commitment:

  1. Information Facilitation: this is essentially the role they used to have before the restructure. When you do information facilitation, you find information about innovation, and distribute this to people that are generating ideas. This will help them figure out how to best execute the new ideas. In this role you can also work on developing processes and infrastructure that support all parts of the innovation process. This type of group is most active in supporting idea generation.
  2. Opportunity Consultant: a group doing this will do everything that an Information Facilitation team does, but they will take a more active role in selecting ideas. They work to ensure that the ideas that are pursued connect with the organisation’s overall strategy. In this role you work on developing the best possible set of criteria for evaluating ideas, particularly for fit with objectives.
  3. Opportunity Enabler: this type of group goes one step further – they work to connect ideas with those that have the resources to execute them. Enabling collaboration is a big part of this role – you need a group in this role if you are pursuing an open innovation strategy. This type of team will also work on developing implementation plans, and trying to quantify outcomes and learnings from new initiatives. Opportunity enablers are active in supporting all steps in the innovation process – idea generation, selection, testing and diffusion.
  4. Execution Delivery: this is the most active role you can have – this is a group that doesn’t just support the innovation process, they actually undertake all the steps. Most R&D groups fall into this category.

It pays to think about this taxonomy for a few important reasons:

  • Upper management often thinks that they are setting up an Execution Delivery group, but only puts together a group with sufficient skills and resources to successfully fill one of the less intensive roles. You can’t set up an innovation group, with responsibility for innovating, without also provided the resources that are required to do this. If you have limited resources (or limited commitment), it is better to acknowledge up front that your new team will be Opportunity Consultants or Enablers. Or even Information Facilitators. The more clear you are about the group’s objectives, the more likely it is that they will be successful. And the objectives have to align with the resources.
  • The skills that you need to fulfill each role increase substantially as you move up the list. This is one of the issues that the team we’re working with faces – they started out as Information Facilitators, but in their new role will only deliver value to the organisation if they are able to be Opportunity Enablers. This requires a different set of skills. Fortunately, the group is very bright, and quick learners – so they may well be able to build these skills. But again, you have to think about what skills are required up front.
  • Because the skill requirements are different, don’t expect one group to fill more than one or at most two of these roles. To some extent the lower-level activities are included as you move up the ladder, but not entirely. If you need to have all four roles filled within your organisation, you probably need to have more than one group working to support innovation. Or you at least need to have responsibility for these different roles clearly assigned to different people within one large team.

Using specialist teams to support innovation is a really good idea. However, in order for them to be successful, you need to be clear at the start about which role you want them to fulfill. Each one requires different skills, and different levels of resourcing. If you want a high-performing Execution Delivery team, you need to resource it appropriately.

If you don’t don’t need a full delivery team, or if you don’t have the resources or commitment to supporting one, then you need to scale back expectations. It’s a question of figuring out which role best supports your overall strategy. That’s how you work through your ball of creative mess.

(the cartoon is from Hugh MacLeod’s daily newsletter – you can subscribe to it here)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “4 Roles for Your Innovation Team

  1. Thanks Tim; my take on this:

    These days, one of the tech innovation enablers is the capture/storage/response tooling, which 90% of the time is a collaborative web platform.

    There is a critical role for the development and maintenance of a vibrant, motivated online community, whether that community serves a business or social only purpose – the community manager (CM)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_community_manager)

    They will act as the visible masthead of the community that drives engagement and promotes the tooling, the members, successes and who has access to key personnell from a broad cross section of the business in order to illicit appropriate responses to ideas/issues raised through the tooling.

    The CM sits in a team of business improvement facilitators, who have the same access to the broad crosss section of decision makers across the business.

    Senior representatives from that cross section are part of a rotating Business Improvement Council that meet each month and review and score ideas that have been pre-assessed by the facilitators and progressed to this forum.

    Ideas deemed to have merit (through the Business Opportunity Review Matrix) and agreed by member/s of the council that they should become initiatives are allocated to a member of the facilitation team, who then reach out to the rest of the business, using their senior member contacts to engage with people to be part of the working party to bring the initiative to life.

    This approach I think reduces critical dependancies (assuming you get a couple of people visible in the CM space) and allows everyone in the business to potentially be involved in the innovation process.

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