Who is Responsible for Innovation?

I run across a lot of organisations that say that ‘innovation’ is one of their core values, but their actions don’t support innovation at all. Every once in a while, one of them decides that it is time to get serious about innovation, and that’s when I get called in to help. As John has described, one of the first issues that these organisations deal with is the question of how to be more innovative. Often their first step is to work on generating more ideas, but we know that idea generation usually isn’t the problem – idea execution is. Coming to grips with this is one of the key steps to take in becoming more innovative. Another key step is figuring out who should be responsible for innovation?

Jonathan Crowley from NESTA frames the issue nicely – organisations face two choices: create an innovation team that is responsible for driving innovation, or make innovation part of everyone’s job. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

If you have an innovation team, they have clear responsibility for innovation. Often, setting up a separate team involves providing them with some resources. If your organisation has not been very innovative in the past, the team can be a good place to put innovative people that have been frustrated by this, and they will often thrive in the new role. All of these are advantages to forming a core innovation group.

However, there are also downsides to innovation teams. They can often become isolated (think Xerox PARC), which can make it difficult for their ideas to diffuse within the organisation. By making one group responsible for innovation, it makes it easier for everyone else to ignore it.

Distributed InnovationThe way around these two problems is to distribute responsibility to innovation out to everyone. This makes it easier to get buy-in for new ideas, and they often diffuse through the organisation more quickly. This approach also makes it easier to unleash the latent creativity within the group.

But there are disadvantages here too. The big ones are that when organisations take this approach, there is often no actual responsibility taken for innovation, and no resources devoted to it. I’ve often seen this in MBA programs when schools say something like ‘ethics is too important to just have in one class, it should be a central part of all classes.’ Usually when you hear this, ethics ends up being completely ignored. The same thing often happens with distributed innovation.

So what’s the answer? I think that you need to do both. As organisations try to become more innovative these are the issues that need to be addressed:

  • Innovation needs dedicated resources – this can come either through forming an innovation team, or giving everyone some time and money to execute new ideas. But one way or another, if you’re serious about innovation, you need to sink some money into and free up some time for people.
  • Someone has to actually be responsible for innovation outcomes – again, this often ends up being a mix of centralised and distributed. Someone whose title starts with ‘C’ needs to care about and own innovation outcomes. At the same time, you need to make everyone responsible for contributing to executing new ideas.
  • You need a group of people that can drive innovation – and for this, the right answer is often to form an innovation team. These people can become your innovation champions, and help others through the process of generating, selecting and executing ideas.
  • At the same time, you need a mechanism for getting everyone involved with innovation – this can be crowdsourcing new ideas, having innovation jams to select the best ones, or giving everyone an innovation metric that they have to meet. But one way or another, you need everyone involved so that new ideas are actually executed.

This is one of the things that makes it really challenging to become more innovative. If you want to actually be more innovative instead of simply saying that you value innovation, the answer to who is responsible for innovation is: everyone!

Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

Tim Kastelle




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