As my trusted advisor, I talked with Nina in my office for over two hours. We chatted about everything innovation. All the pieces were in place to shift the organisation to a new plane on which innovation would be the centerpiece of our culture and strategy.

Eventually I shared with Nina my frustration: while the innovation groundswell seemed to be shifting employee behavior, the leadership behaviors which had forever stood in the way of innovation persisted. The Chief Technology Officer, for instance, had shown a pattern of stopping our innovation initiatives in their tracks. He was far more likely to block our efforts than to help advance them. 

Influencers and leaders within an organisation more often than not want to take credit for the initiatives their teams are working on. Nina’s expertise lied in sales, and she knew this truth. She was the perfect person to be confiding in. To her, the solution was evident: someone had to get out in front of the change we were promoting. A new approach was required. Innovation had to be sold into the organisation. The case for change had to be presented. Project sponsors had to be enlisted, and the most impactful sponsors would be those who had previously utilised their influence to block innovation. We had to overcome the force of ego. 

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” In many respects, it does not matter how great a particular innovation is at overcoming a business challenge. If the leader who controls the resources required to implement and sponsor the change is not fully invested, the initiative is likely to fall flat. Particularly inside of a complex organisation, where competing priorities and politics are prevalent, innovation requires Champions to set the table for change, and to overcome the barriers that present themselves.

Eight Traits of the Champion Archetype

Effective Champions are those who can negotiate power structures and political currents in an organisation to influence decisions. Let’s explore eight traits of the Champion archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. Champions are fascinated by organisational politics. They will thrive when they get a “No” response; they will not be deterred and will find a way to get to “Yes.” 
  2. Champions are action-oriented. They motivate others to prepare for change, to change themselves, and to innovate.
  3. Champions work closely with Architects to survey and respond to the environment in which innovation is required. While the Champion will position themselves out in frontlearning from others while promoting and selling change, the Architect may be found behind closed doorsscrutinizing the organisation’s readiness and crafting the approach to innovation.
  4. Champions work well with Experts <<link to: >> to understand what’s changing in the world. Champions rely upon the expertise of others to help them influence and negotiate outcomes.
  5. By taking steps to ensure all team members are participating in and are recognised for driving change, the Teammate may drain the energy of the Champion, who may feel she is able to influence decisions with a single closed-door conversation.
  6. Champions may navigate back-channels to influence decisions. This can frustrate the Initiator who desires to follow predefined processes and organisational best practices.
  7. Champions will work with Agitators  to understand how to position the innovation team for maximum traction within the organizationallowing it to cut against the grain most efficiently and effectively.
  8. Champions know and appreciate those in power positions, and they work to understand what drives decision-making in an organisation.

The importance of the Champion role in an innovation team can easily be overlooked, only becoming apparent when it may be too late. The strongest innovators recognise that this role must be played early, often, and with a deft hand to effectively influence innovation outcomes.

Big Picture Thinking

Champions have a well-developed understanding of the environment in which teams operate and in which decisions are made. They understand both what their organisation requires from innovation as well as what is in the organisation’s innovation pipeline. The strongest Champions also anticipate future innovation needs by staying on top of industry trends, competitive intelligence, and technology advances.

The Champion may not always be a strong team player. The Champion tends to move quickly, not stopping to fully appreciate all the work that is being done to drive change, particularly in the trenches. To avoid causing friction, they must remember to maintain a presence throughout the entire change process, even after they’ve shifted their attention to the next challenge.

The Champion will thrive when looking at innovation from a birds-eye view, but that is not to say that the Champion will not be detail-oriented. It is often the case that a successful presentation requires a demonstration that some rigorous pre-defined criteria were met. The Champion may be an engineer managing to technical specs, or an operations analyst measuring adherence to operational standards. What sets the Champion apart is the ability to form deep, influential relationships within a broad cross-functional network, even when the relationships may only be of benefit at some later date.

Every Day is a Performance

Recalling the Nietzsche quote, the role of the Champion is more one of managing perceptions than it is managing outcomes. The best innovation in the world may be left to die on the vine if the organisation is not ready to take the risk required to accept and implement it. The Champion is an actor, a storyteller, performing to gain pre-commitment from decision-makers and decision-blockers to what’s coming up in the innovation pipeline. It is the Champion who must impress upon the organisation the urgency to act, and build confidence in the solutions that are being considered, developed, and tested.

When Nina explained to me that our organisation lacked an innovation Champion, my immediate response was to ask her to take on the role. After all, she was the sales expert. She pushed back, asking me, “What will be more effective in the long run, a sales expert pretending to know what the innovation department is working on, or an innovation expert learning the skill of being a salesman?”

As Chief Innovation Officer, I knew the tumultuous undercurrents of resistance better than anyone. Nina was right: Champion was my role to play. I had to be out in front, showing support for the employees who were taking risks in their work every day, knocking down barriers to resistance, and enlisting allies from across the organisation so that innovation could accomplish what the organisation required of it. 

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.