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Roles For Innovation: The Right People At The Right Times

Roles For Innovation: The Right People At The Right Times

Executive Technology Report

is written by Peter Andrews, Consulting Faculty, IBM Advanced Business Institute, and is published as a service of IBM Corporation. Visit http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades
Copyright ©1999-2007 IBM Corporation. All rights reserved.
IBM and the IBM logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both. Other company, product and service names may be trademarks or service marks of others. References in this publication to IBM products and services do not imply that IBM intends to make them available in all countries in which IBM operates. G510-3959-00

Reproduced with permission by the author
Executive Technology Report is written by Peter Andrews, Consulting Faculty, IBM Business Institute, and is published as a service of IBM Corporation. Visit http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades September 2004

Author: Peter Andrews

Innovation Strategist, IBM Executive Business Institute

12 March 2007

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 7, 2007

Executive summary
Sustained innovation depends on the participation of a variety of talented people across the whole process. By understanding key roles and commitments required for innovation, organizations can move faster and more effectively.

A couple of heroes working in a garage to create the future makes a great story, but it doesn’t say much about building an innovative culture. “Eureka!” (I found it!) may be the slogan in the history books, but “Eurekamen!” (We found it!) provides a more easily followed example. Even the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes needed input, in the form of a king’s question before he could make his discovery of the principle of buoyancy.

Innovation is a community activity. Look at the forces that needed to be marshalled to achieve the Manhattan project (the World War II program carried out across multiple United States sites to build the first atomic weapons). Or, what’s necessary to perform the day-to-day activities of Silicon Valley. And whether the quest is for incremental improvements or new business models that obsolete industry leaders, success has one thing in common: participation by the right people.

Understanding who these people are – and what and when they contribute – provides real value to an organization:

  • Fast starts – If a team is put together with all the right pieces, there is a better chance of success

  • Accountability – When individuals know their roles and what is expected of them, they are better able to commit and carry through on them

  • Fast fixes – When a soccer team is losing, one approach is to look at it position by position. Similarly, when an innovation team isn’t doing well, a quick look at the roles and how they are being performed can help to diagnose a problem and point to a solution.

  • Better balance – It’s easier to tune a team and assign work fairly when the many critical activities are more fully understood. Also, as the team members come to understand this, it is more likely that they will tolerate and even appreciate differences in approaches and attitudes.

  • Improved capability – Once the roles are known, it’s time to hire, assign, evaluate, identify and train personnel to fill them. One can even begin to recognize best practices from a different perspective and create more appropriate performance measures.

All of this is not to disparage the accomplishment of heroes. But, while extraordinary talents may be able to take on a variety of tasks, most innovation – even disruptive, market-changing innovation – involves many people and a variety of roles, including champions, evangelists, mixers, mentors, sponsors, connectors and more. And, without a doubt, creating a culture of continuous innovation depends upon identifying and connecting the right people at the right times.

In fact, three questions need to be answered:

  1. What kind of innovation am I looking for?

  2. Where am I in the process?

  3. Who needs to participate in that stage?

One key way to segment innovation activity is in terms of outcome. This is predicated by the culture of the organization and its needs.

While innovation may be defined in many ways, it usually falls into one of four categories:

  • Eureka! – True, out-of-the-box innovation that introduces something new and disruptive to the marketplace

  • Exemplar – The pursuit of innovation events or artifacts that are attention-getting, reputation building and possibly of significant value

  • Best of breed – The systematic effort to apply the premier, proven concepts across the organization

  • New to me – A company’s accepting the challenge of applying or adopting specific changes or artifacts of proven value without specific claims of novelty beyond its own point of reference.

In addition, there is a meta-category that is relevant here, creating the Innovative Culture.

Just as the Learning Organization attempts to provide a range of opportunities and motivations for increasing the knowledge and skills of a firm, the Innovative Culture creates conditions and routes that may serve several ends and involve a variety of levels of participation, but, in fact, are actively supported and promoted by the firm.

Seven stages of innovation

The process can vary widely, but there are seven stages that can be used as reference points for most organizations interested in innovation:

  1. Idea/Insight.

  1. This is what gets documented in a brainstorming session. It is the first expression of new possibilities, either as a combination or a complete novelty.

  2. Research.

  3. Here, the idea is actualized. The idea is checked for precedence, put into context, tested and explored for application.

  4. Development.

  5. The innovation must be directed toward a market, honed, made feasible and “owned” at an appropriate level.

  6. Management/Strategy.

  7. Companies that have formal processes of innovation may go back to this stage repeatedly, but, essentially, it is here that innovations are judged, put into a business context, prioritized, validated supported and promoted.

  8. Manufacturing/Distribution.

  9. Here, the innovation becomes a product or service and is made available outside the organization.

  10. Sales/Marketing.

  11. The innovation must be reinterpreted for customers, made visible, explained and offered. In addition, Sales provides a venue for feedback and judgment.

  12. Marketplace.

  13. The customer validates the innovation by buying and using the innovation.

Now, the assumption for these stages is that the process for innovation is formal. In a sense, Management/Strategy is at the center of formal innovation activities. An alternative approach is the informal process, which puts a community of interest at the center of activity and can make parallel, converge and even leave out some of the stages above. A key differentiator of informal processes is the need for specific roles that are not needed in a formal process, and these will be covered later in this article. (In reality, there may be a blend of informal and formal process, and healthy organizations regularly validate and co-opt informal works-in-progress. At the frontier and still rare are processes that put the customer at the center of innovation. These provide a very different perspective that won’t be covered here.)

Formal innovation roles

Having covered the kinds of innovation and the process stages, it’s time to look at the roles. Not every role will participate in every kind of innovation or every stage, but here are 15 roles. The list isn’t comprehensive; there are some optional – but enriching – roles, such as Librarians (cluster, organize, find, reference, relate) and Hobbyists (sample, advocate, engage). It is also possible that people of unusual talent will assume more than one major role.


  • Explorer – A curious person who is actively involved in dynamic communities, open to new ideas and playful. Some of the things Explorers do include searching, surveying, playing, brainstorming, improvising, combining, reinterpreting, reinventing, adapting, imagining, fitting, revealing and discovering.

  • Judge – Though restrained in this stage, there still is a role for someone who compares, contrasts, evaluates, chooses and prioritizes.


  • Inventor – Someone has to make the idea into something more tangible. This person designs, applies, builds, adapts, pilots and demonstrates the innovation.

  • Advocate – Innovations need to be put into narrative. The Advocate interprets, explains, protects, promotes and positions the innovation.

  • Judge – Here, more proof is needed. The innovation must be looked at with a questioning and skeptical eye, so someone (often the Inventor) must experiment, test, prove, evaluate, validate, analyze, compare, choose and prioritize.

  • Scrounger – Real work requires real resources. Someone must find them, get them and hold onto them. This often requires making connections and getting attention. Usually, another role takes on this task, often the Advocate.


  • Coordinator – A project with deadlines and deliverables needs to be managed and provided with sequences and milestones. The Coordinator must plan, allocate, assign, schedule, put into scope and assure completion of an innovation project, but the Coordinator isn’t just a traditional program manager. To be successful, the Coordinator must moderate management activity for an innovation by developing and using criteria that respect the uncertainties and the value of exploration and redirection.

  • Builder – Someone needs to build, test and perfect a prototype that can catch the attention of management and be put into production by manufacturing. The Builder here must be especially creative and regularly find novel solutions.

  • Advocate – This is a two-way role, both promoting to management (and possibly customers) and delivering viable feedback to builders. Often, the Advocate will reinterpret, contextualize, simplify and explain.


  • Leader – It is never easy to innovate, so executive support is critical to any formal process. The Leader needs to validate the relevance of the innovation (often by reference to the organization’s vision). He or she also needs to take ownership by encouraging and inspiring the team and protecting them against other interests. The Leader needs to establish criteria for measuring the progress and success of the innovation, and these usually need to go beyond simple return-on-investment calculations. Often, the Leader also finds partners (both internal external) to create synergies and novel applications for the innovation.

  • Judge – Someone needs to determine if the innovation is on track to deliver benefits. Is it real? Is it progressing according to plan? Are the right people involved? How big an impact is likely and what does that mean to the rest of the business? The Judge’s chief role is to provide an independent view without becoming an enemy of innovation.

  • Financier – Someone needs to come up with the money and resources. The best Financiers nurture the innovation by both providing and restricting funding to help shape the innovation and move it to the market in a timely way.

  • Planner – Ultimately, progress toward realizing an innovation must be coordinated with other organizational initiatives and objectives. Someone must sequence the provision of resources (not just money, but also staff, executive time for input and use of other teams, such as marketing). The Planner needs to schedule milestones and specific deliverables to get the best synergies and to make sure the ultimate impact, in the marketplace, is timed to take the best advantage of demand and meet the challenges of the competition. Coordination may extend outward to partners and vendors. As with other roles involved in innovation, there is a need for greater tolerance of failure and for the ability to improvise.

  • Advocate – Every time an innovation moves from one stage to another, there are difficulties in helping it “make sense” and fit in. It is up to the Advocate in the management stage to champion the innovation by explaining how it provides value both to the organization as a whole and to the specific division or team that helps develop the innovation.


  • Interpreter – Going from a prototype to the marketplace requires many tough decisions. Inevitably, compromises are made to make the innovation usable, profitable, safe and effective. The Interpreter maintains the essentials of the original vision while supporting revisions, adaptations and customizations. He or she must both explain and defend the innovation.

  • Planner – On the local level of the plant, the shipping dock or the dispatcher, decisions must be made regarding how, when and to whom resources are allocated. Milestones must be set and work must be prioritized. For an innovation, all of this must be aimed primarily at making the innovation a success, so adjustments will often need to be made when availability is limited, rework is needed and special customers (such as the press or beta testers) need to be accommodated.

  • Builder – The innovation must be created and tuned to the demands of the marketplace and the needs of the business. It must be reliably and repeatedly provided and trade-offs must be made to provide for flexibility in production, as well as high quality of deliverables. But even at this stage, the marketplace may provide “near realtime” feedback that will require quick adjustments.

  • Judge – Someone needs to make the ultimate decision as to whether the deliverable meets specifications, and with innovations, this needs to be done iteratively. The Judge checks, critiques, surveys, accepts and rejects.


  • Promoter – An innovation needs to get attention. A Promoter positions, explains, interprets and advertises an innovation so that it gets mindshare and interest of target markets. Since an innovation often has greater uncertainties as to market and perceptions, the Promoter must approach his or her job with more caution, more testing and more collaboration with others on the team.

  • Salesperson – The face of the innovation to the customer is the Salesperson. He or she finds, contacts and engages with the customer. The Salesperson negotiates and closes the deal, then does what is necessary to assure delivery. Again, it’s more likely that unexpected (and sometimes bad) things will happen, so people selling an innovation need to be more diplomatic and less focused on just closing the deal. In fact, some people who would be willing to buy the innovation – especially those less comfortable with risk – should not be offered it.

  • Analyst – Once an innovation is in the marketplace, someone needs to listen to what users are saying and understand both how unanticipated needs are being met (suggesting new markets) and what problems the customer is experiencing. The Analyst may interview and survey customers, but he or she must work in the other direction, too, helping those in the organization who can increase the value of the innovation to respond in appropriate ways.


  • Buyer – There is no more relevant feedback on an innovation than its adoption and use by a customer. And a direct indication of its value is the time and money that is spent to gain its benefits.

  • Judge – The customer evaluates, tests, applies, adapts and uses the innovation. In the process, he or she inevitably provides a critique, and this analysis is based not just on the artifact or service, but the whole experience of becoming informed, buying, installing, sharing, defending and incorporating the innovation into a new context.

  • Promoter – If the benefits are sufficient, the customer will help to explain, interpret, put into context and even sell the innovation. He or she may provide tips for success and recommendations.

These roles are not set in stone, but they can become a good touchstone while working through the process of innovation. In some cases, a Judge in Manufacturing may be the same person as a Judge in Development, even changing teams to assure continuity. But, in a large organization, the person, and even some of his or her specific training, may be different.

The informal innovation process: Communities of Interest

All bets are off when describing an informal process. Some roles, and even some organizations, may cease to participate. While Management/Strategy is at the center of the formal process – and may step in repeatedly – the center of the informal process is the Community of Interest, and it has its own set of essential roles.

  • Host – Someone needs to keep the key topics related to an innovation under discussion and moving forward. This is the responsibility of the Host of a Community of Interest, who also provides a context for work and discussion and may help to focus activity and encourage contributions. With innovation, nontraditional subgroups are likely to form, and the host must be creative about how he or she enables these.

  • Subject Matter Expert – An innovation goes nowhere in the absence of real knowledge. High school students discussing avenues to world peace may come up with out-of-the-box ideas, but nothing goes on to real-world impact without the discipline of practical experience, understanding of issues and hard facts.

  • Connector – The life of any community is dependent on bringing in new people and bringing together in new ways those who are present. This is especially true for a community that is the center of innovation because there is always a scramble for workers, resources and new ways to overcome barriers.

Roles in work or life are rarely permanent. They are really convenient shorthand for assigning responsibility for innovation, but, just as the titles for business initiatives (reengineering, total quality management, knowledge management) go out of fashion, roles can become stale and corrupt over time. Actions are the pieces of role analysis that are evergreen. By paying attention to the verbs and re-sorting them to assure coverage by the team, the creation of a culture of innovation can survive the changes in fashion and shifts in expectations.

Sites of interest

Creativity: Concepts and tools

http://www.infinitefutures.com/resources/frm/frmcreativity.html See especially the Innovation Roles list.
Creating high performance teams
Team dimensions profile http://www.momentumcoaching.com/care.html
Creativity and perception in management: Roles http://owt.typepad.com/oubs/2004/06/creativity_and__3.html
Drucker on innovation http://blogs.salon.com/0002007/categories/businessInnovation/2003/11/13.html#a515
Go to the original book (Innovation & Entrepreneurship at http://www.peterdrucker.com/books/0887306187.html), or read the precis in this blog.
Managing innovation versus managing operations
Promoting breakthrough innovation http://www.iriinc.org/webiri/Publications/promotingbreakthrough-innovation.cfm
Responses to your new ideas http://www.ljkamm.com/inov.htm A collection from sympathetic to hostile.
Habits that block creativity
Destination innovation http://www.destination-innovation.com/_wsn/page5.html A quick, insightful quiz on innovation readiness.
Meyer, Marcy. “Innovation Roles: From Souls of Fire to Devil's Advocates.”
The Journal of Business Communication, October 1, 2000.

About this publication
Executive Technology Report is a monthly publication intended as a heads-up on emerging technologies and business ideas. All the technological initiatives covered in Executive Technology Report have been extensively analyzed using a proprietary IBM methodology. This involves not only rating the technologies based on their functions and maturity, but also doing quantitative analysis of the social, user and business factors that are just as important to its ultimate adoption. From these data, the timing and importance of emerging technologies are determined. Barriers to adoption and hidden value are often revealed, and what is learned is viewed within the context of five technical themes that are driving change:
Knowledge Management: Capturing a company's collective expertise wherever it resides – databases, on paper, in people's minds – and distributing it to where it can yield big payoffs
Pervasive Computing: Combining communications technologies and an array of computing devices (including PDAs, laptops, pagers and servers) to allow users continual access to the data, communications and information services
Realtime: "A sense of ultracompressed time and foreshortened horizons, [a result of technology] compressing to zero the time it takes to get and use information, to learn, to make decisions, to initiate action, to deploy resources, to innovate" (Regis McKenna, Real Time, Harvard Business School Publishing, 1997.)
Ease-of-Use: Using user-centric design to make the experience with IT intuitive, less painful and possibly fun
Deep Computing: Using unprecedented processing power, advanced software and sophisticated algorithms to solve problems and derive knowledge from vast amounts of data This analysis is used to form the explanations, projections and discussions in each Executive Technology Report issue so that you not only find out what technologies are emerging, but how and why they'll make a difference to your business. If you would like to explore how IBM can help you take advantage of these new concepts and ideas, please contact us at . To browse through other resources for business executives, please visit ibm.com/services

Peter Andrews is an innovation strategist and consulting faculty member at IBM's Executive Business Institute. He has spent a career bridging the gap between the technical potential and the bottom line. He is the author of over 100 articles on innovation, emerging technology and leadership, and his Executive Tech Reports are featured monthly on the IBM services Web site. Andrews consults and holds workshops both within IBM and externally. He uses a variety of techniques to probe, extend and validate the opportunities presented by new technologies. He has helped banks, insurance companies, manufacturers and retailers develop their own capabilities to take a fresh look at emerging technologies, come to a common understanding of their value and take practical steps to exploit them. Notably, he has held innovation workshops with over 100 IBM Researchers worldwide that have helped them to determine the business implications of their inventions, recognize possible sponsors and create value propositions. Andrews has been actively involved in research and working at the leading edge for his entire career. His participation is always in demand for IBM Academy studies, and he is a popular presenter on the future, most recently as the closing keynote speaker for KMWorld 2006. He can be contacted at ">">, New York (845) 732-6095 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (845) 732-6095 end_of_the_skype_highlighting and http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades

Short description
Sustained innovation depends on the participation of a variety of talented people across the whole process. By understanding key roles and commitments required for innovation, organizations can move faster and more effectively.

Keywords and relevant phrases
Communication, corporate culture, development, innovation, key performance areas, performance, responsibility, roles, skills, strategy, teamwork.

Back to ... Workinfo.com Human Resources Magazine Volume 1 Issue 7, 2007


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