Who Innovates: Creating the Innovation Culture with Geniuses, Leaders & Champions

Organizations that are successful at innovation naturally develop a strong innovation culture. But supposing an innovation culture doesn’t yet exist in your organization. Then how can you develop it?

Organizations that are successful at innovation naturally develop a strong innovation culture.  Such a culture is much appreciated by customers who say that the company is a genuine innovator, and it’s also known among the people inside the organization as a dynamic and innovation-friendly place to be.

But supposing an innovation culture doesn’t yet exist in your organization.  Then how can you nurture it?  How do organizations develop an innovation culture?  Who should be involved in the innovation process?  And what roles should they play?

Every culture is an expression of behaviors and attitudes, and every organization’s culture reflects the beliefs and actions of its people, as well as the history that shaped them.  The innovation culture, of course, is likewise an expression of people, their past, and their current beliefs, ideas, behaviors, and actions about innovation.

We have found that the innovation culture comes into being when people throughout the organization actively engage in promoting and supporting innovation, implementing rigorous innovation methods, and filling three essential roles:  Creative Geniuses, Innovation Champions, and Innovation Leaders.

Innovation’s creative geniuses

Who comes up with the critical ideas that are the beginnings of innovation, and then turns these ideas into insights, and insights into innovations?  They are Creative Geniuses, and they work everywhere, inside and outside.

If it seems like a stretch to label these people as “geniuses,” let me explain the rationale.  No one can innovate if they accept things the way they are today, so making innovations requires that we are willing to see things differently.  We have to overcome institutional and bureaucratic inertia that may burden our thinking process, and challenge ourselves to see beyond conventional viewpoints.  This fits perfectly with the dictionary definition of genius, which is “exceptional natural capacity shown in creative and original work.”

Innovation champions

Innovation Champions are those who promote, encourage, prod, support, and drive innovation in their organizations.  They do this in spontaneous moments of insight, in ad-hoc initiatives, as well as in highly structured innovation programs.

Innovation champions build the practical means for effective, systematic innovation.  They take direct responsibility for finding creative thinkers and encouraging them to see and work in new ways; they help people seek new experiences that may spark new ideas; and they create a regular operations context in which sharing and developing new ideas is the norm.

While they may work anywhere in the organization, including in senior management positions, line management roles, staff, or front line operations roles, the specific nature of the Innovation Champion’s role is to function in the middle, to provide the bridge between the strategic decisions of senior managers and the day to day focus of front line workers.

Innovation leaders

An Innovation Leader is someone who shapes or influences the core structures and the basic operations of an organization, all with a clear focus on supporting innovation.

Core structures include the design of the organization itself, as well as its policies and their underlying principles.  Metrics and rewards can also be core structures.

None of these factors are absolute givens, and all of them can be changed, and that’s the point:  they are all subject to design, to thoughtful choice about what is best.  It’s generally within the power of senior managers to change them, and when they impede innovation they should be changed to favor it.

The actions and attitudes of senior managers are based, ultimately, on their philosophies about management, on their mindset, which we explored earlier in this document. Innovation leaders set expectations, define priorities, celebrate and reward successes, and deal with failures, and all of these factors can be done in a way that makes innovation easier or more difficult, because each can be arranged to favor the status quo or to favor useful and effective change.

Do leaders believe in a win-win model, or win-lose?  Win-lose organizations usually are not trusting environments, and because trust is so important to innovation, when it’s missing innovation suffers.

Leaders also set goals, and they don’t need to be modest; in fact they can be outright aggressive.  By setting ambitious goals, managers emphasize the linkage between an organization’s strategy and the pursuit of innovation, elevating innovation to a strategic concern where it properly belongs.  Conversely, if innovation is not expressed as a specific goal of top management then it probably won’t be a goal of anyone else, either; and if policies are restrictive and make it difficult to test new ideas, then there won’t be many new ideas.  We refer to organizations that are focused on the present, rather than the future, as “status quo organizations.”

Status Quo Culture Innovation Culture
1. Predictability Un-predictability
2. Seek stability Seek novelty
3. Focus on core competence Focus on edge competence
4. High success rate High failure rate
5. Reinforce the organizational hierarchy Reinforce organizational networks
6. Fear the hierarchy Focus on creative tension
7. Avoid surprises Embrace surprises
8. Focus on inside knowledge Combine inside and outside knowledge
9. Easy to live with Hard to live with
10. Corporate politics Moving the cheese
11. Efficiency through standardization Efficiency through innovation
12. Extend the status quo Abandon the status quo
13. Avoid change Embrace change
14. Measure stability Measure innovation
15. Look for data to confirm existing management models Look for data to contradict existing management models
16. Senior managers have the critical knowledge Everyone has critical knowledge
17. Look for certainty Embrace ambiguity
18. Accept things as they are Ask tough questions
19. Protect the past Create the future

Status Quo Culture and the Innovation Culture

The table is a slight parody, in that there are no purely status quo organizations, but it does frame the contrast quite clearly.

The firm that’s obsessed with the status quo probably won’t last very long, but some managers still seem to believe in this model, and their domineering attitudes and behaviors reinforce it.

Innovation doesn’t happen without leaders who embrace it, nor can it happen without people who have ideas and are willing to risk failure to experiment with them. Nor does it happen without champions to bridge between the strategic and operations questions and the individuals who have ideas and want to explore them.

And of course it happens best, and fastest, when all three roles are consciously implemented and mutually supporting. This does not mean that each individual can play only one of these roles; many people are geniuses, and leaders, and champions, and at various times we play all of these roles.

So what is important is not that we classify people into the various categories; in fact, we should avoid doing that. We just need make sure that all three roles are being played, and played well, so that defining, developing, and implementing ideas that become innovations becomes the norm.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:


Langdon Morris is a co-founder of InnovationLabs LLC, one of the world’s leading innovation consultancies. Langdon is also a Contributing Editor and Writer of Innovation Management, Associate Editor of the International Journal of Innovation Science, a member of the Scientific Committee of Business Digest, Paris, and Editor of the Aerospace Technology Working Group Innovation Series. He is author, co-author, or editor of eight books on innovation and strategy, and a frequent speaker at innovation conferences worldwide. He has lectured at universities on 4 continents.

The Innovation Master Plan: The CEO’s Guide to Innovation is now available at Amazon.com.

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