Erik was a very creative, future-focused employee of mine. In many meetings with Erik he naturally led groups through high-energy, impromptu ideation sessions. He had developed rich connections both inside and outside of the financial services industry. He passionately explored emerging industry trends and regularly immersed himself in research data to understand pain points and emerging needs. Each of these traits made Erik an invaluable contributor to our innovation efforts.

As a direct result of Erik’s creativity, an exciting new concept emerged that had the potential to reshape the way that our company distributed financial services products. Through our innovation project prioritization process, Erik was appointed as the product owner who would decide upon the key features and benefits, and oversee the prototyping and testing of the concept prior to a launch decision. Erik was simply asked to provide progress updates every three months. But the months came and went with few signs of progress.

I have a bad habit as a leader – I tend to avoid confrontation. Rather than confront Erik about the lack of progress, I instead offered to help him by funding a prototype design session with an external consultant to identify and prioritize features and benefits of the new concept. I had outwardly given Erik the benefit of the doubt that he simply did not have enough information or data to confidently make decisions, while secretly fearing that he simply didn’t have the capacity to deliver. This pattern repeated itself. As another quarter passed without progress, I again funded a market research study to gather even more data, which only served to further delay the project.

One of my infamous adages as an innovation leader was, “Don’t wait for direction that will never come.” Initiative is a value that I emphasize and seek to develop in my teams. In the business of innovation, to funnel decisions through a bottleneck (such as an over-extended leader) is a death sentence. It is far better to nurture an empowering environment where employees feel motivated and inspired to move projects along independently, in the absence of direction. All employees are not created equal, however. Some, like Erik, thrive in creative, inquiry-oriented roles, while others relentlessly pursue the next milestones. To move Erik’s project forward, we had to find a way to unlock the Initiator within him.

Eight Traits of the Initiator Archetype

Initiative is difficult to teach. Some people, such as project managers, naturally excel. Others may struggle to make forward progress, particularly when processes or objectives are not well defined. Great innovation teams leverage those who can play the role of the Initiator well to execute innovation best practices. The best Initiators act as change agents themselves, not waiting for someone with a higher positional authority or louder voice to tell them how to work.

In order for the Initiator to thrive, she must work to understand what might go wrong, what stands in the way, as well as how problems are solved in the current work ecosystem. Then, she must creatively overcome obstacles to drive teams to achieve results quickly. The innovation Initiator, unlike what’s found in many traditional project manager roles, is OK with failure as long as the risk of failure is known and acceptable.

Let’s explore eight traits of the Initiator archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. The Initiator will thrive when tasked with achieving strategic objectives that have known success criteria.
  2. The Initiator is action-oriented, acting as a catalyst for change. She is often the first to get others to rally together to solve a problem.
  3. The Initiator works closely with the Observer to frame business problems and team objectives so teams can find and implement creative solutions.
  4. Initiators work well with Innovation Leaders, finding and enlisting allies in innovation to architect teams that drive change. Many Initiators develop strong working relationships with cross-functional resources who have demonstrated an ability to make swift decisions and/or deliver surprising or exceptional results.
  5. The Champion out in front of innovation initiatives may make promises or negotiate compromises which will require the Initiator to correct course. Initiators may not fully appreciate externalities that can prevent progress or introduce roadblocks. The Initiator must take care not to lose sight of what’s going on in the broader environmental context.
  6. The Initiator may be frustrated by the Agitator who asks powerful questions that slow progress or introduce late-stage changes.
  7. The best Initiators will partner with a Connector to design team sessions and exercises to solve problems collaboratively and creatively.
  8. The Initiator is not afraid to break rules to move fast. She is not as afraid of failure as she is of not trying.

Again, it’s important to distinguish an innovation Initiator from a traditional project, product, or process manager. The key distinction is that the Initiator is highly adept at organizing the activities required to solve complex problems innovatively, even in the absence of established project protocols.

The Initiator in Practice

In the early years of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg made popular the quip, “Move fast and break things.” This did not just apply to those who were assigned project management roles. It was an expectation of everyone in the organization – an organization of Initiators. In a complex organization, anyone can assume the role of the Initiator. In small innovation teams, the Initiator role can be shared, alternating between team members to give each an opportunity to play other roles.

Great Initiators are not overly dogmatic in their approach to innovation. Instead, they are nimble and flexible. They are able to slow progress when debate is required and make swift, even unpopular, decisions when speed is required. The best can command a room. They know how to signal a shift to a phase change of a project, and to quickly and judiciously assign team roles to accomplish new tasks. For instance, the Initiator can play the role of a room host in a brainstorming session, keeping the goal in sight and the participants on task. At each brainstorming table, a different Initiator can create the space required for participants to share ideas, as outsiders or subject matter experts may feel intimidated in such a setting.

Initiators play the role of keeping a team on task, making sure that commitments are met within agreed-upon time horizons, while allowing others to focus on other project roles. When necessary, Initiators may lead a team in breaking rules and blazing new trails, all while keeping the environment safe for others to take risks. They will do the right thing for the organization, or for the team, or for the customer, even if it cuts against the grain.

Perhaps the most important, and potentially underappreciated, role of the Initiator is to keep teams orientated to specific, high-priority problems. The best Initiators will fall in love with the problem rather than a particular solution. To this end, the Initiator understands the value of the critic – the Expert who will challenge a solution or a notion – particularly if such a contrary point-of-view will get the team closer to solving the problem.

Creating Space for Creativity, Collaboration, and Risk Taking

Innovation flourishes in an empowering environment – one in which innovators receive the support and cover fire they need to challenge the status quo. The Initiator plays a key role in sustaining an empowering environment. Once an Innovation Leader creates the conditions for innovation to thrive, it becomes the Initiator’s responsibility to preserve and improve upon it. For even when the conditions are just right for fire, it takes a spark. The Initiator will create space for others to shine and for the project catch fire.

Organisational systems have entropy. Conditions tend to disorder if left unattended. Initiators create order from disorder. Creativity, collaboration and risk taking don’t happen on their own. The tendency of a system is to default to the lowest energy required to complete a task. To be successful at innovation, however, a highly energetic and creative setting may be the lowest energy required to produce the intended result. Collaboration is a vital requirement to successful innovation, particularly in a complex organisation. And the amount of risk taken is correlated directly to the safety of the environment to take those risks.

Recall my employee, Erik. With a natural tendency to connect people and ideas, he struggled to make forward progress on the tactical elements of innovation. About twelve months after assigning Erik as the product manager, we had a long overdue follow-up conversation in which I A) provided challenging direction to have the prototype developed and tested within three months, B) showed him that I would continue to support him, and C) assigned him the critical role of the Initiator to do whatever it would take to meet the objective. His efforts immediately shifted from data collection, ideation, and analysis paralysis to activities which drove the project towards its milestone. Erik blossomed in this role, later recounting to me how critical this conversation had been to changing his mindset. I took a share of the blame for the long delay, noting my aversions both to conflict and to providing direction. In playing the Initiator role, myself, I learned a lesson that providing clear direction isn’t the same as micro-management. Clear direction can be empowering when it removes uncertainty and sets appropriate – challenging yet attainable – expectations.

Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He will profile each of his eight archetypes in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.