Five Roles for Your Innovation Team


The Problem with Solved Problems that Aren’t Solved

Phil was certain that his company had their innovation problems solved. After all, they had a dedicated innovation team, they had idea management software, and they had started a big internal PR effort to highlight successful innovations.

What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, actually. Over the past few years, I’ve met plenty of people in Phil’s position.  They think that they have made the investments that are required to make their organisations more innovative. So they end up feeling perplexed when they find, after a few years, that their organisations are no better at innovating then they were before they made those investments.

They thought that innovation was a solved problem, when, in fact it was not. Usually, this is a sign that we haven’t solved the right problem.

One of the big issues here is that there are actually five roles that an innovation team can fulfil. We need to have all five filled if we are going to innovate successfully, but many innovation efforts only cover a couple of them. We need to better understand these roles.

Five Roles for Your Innovation Team

Innovation is the process of idea management. To get the most out of your innovation team, you need to align its responsibilities with the parts of the process that need the most help.  The process looks like this:


In order to innovate effectively, you need to be able to execute all five steps (go here to read about the challenges in the circle in red).

With this in mind, here are the five roles that your innovation team can fill:


  1. Information Facilitation: 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. IMG_0641Opportunity 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. IMG_0642Opportunity 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. IMG_0643Idea Execution: 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. Usually, with this type of group, there is no problem with getting innovative results – the bigger challenge is integrating their ideas back into the core business.
  5. IMG_0644Business Model Development: genuinely new innovations usually need new business models to help them realise their full market potential.  Unlike the other four roles, this one can be mixed with the other four.

Which Type of Team is Best For You?

Let’s go back to Phil – how does this help with his problem?  The issue in his firm is that they top managers set up an innovation team that has the skill-set and resources available to be Information Enablers, but the managers are expecting them to an Idea Execution team.

This, obviously, is a big problem.

And it’s not uncommon. Nearly everyone that sets up these teams thinks that they are building an Idea Execution team.  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.

It’s worth noting that the same problem happens with innovation software. Organisations often buy a piece of idea management software and then assume that they have innovation handled.  This is not true – you still need all of these roles filled.

Closely related to this, as you move up the scale, the resources and skills that you need increase.  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.



The last tricky bit is figuring out where business model innovation fits.  Many organisations think that it should come after all of the other stuff has happened, as in the picture above. Here’s the issue: even if you sink a bunch of resources into building an Idea Execution team, you still might not get better at innovation. That’s because they still only do two parts of innovation – they execute new ideas.  But innovation is executing new ideas to create value.

If you’re just executing new ideas without creating value, you often end up frustrated.  That’s why business model innovation is so important – it is a great tool for discovering the value that your new idea actually creates.

What you really need is an innovation system that looks like this:



If your innovation team does anything more complex than information sharing, you should probably think about building business model innovation capability into the group as well.  It is not something that comes in at the end of idea generation, selection, and execution.  It needs to happen in conjunction with all of these steps.

This is the best way to ensure that your organisation will be skilled at all of the parts of the innovation process.

To build an innovative organisation, you need to have all five of these roles filled.  If you form an innovation team, they will often fill some, but not all, of these roles.  If you buy a piece of innovation software, you face the same issue.

If you don’t understand what the different roles are, and how you’re addressing them, then it’s likely that you will be in the same situation as Phil – investing many resources into innovation, without seeing much return.

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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