When launching your new innovation program, it’s crucial to build the right team in order to maximize the effectiveness of the effort. An innovation program is like team sports, where clear roles and responsibilities are necessary in order to succeed.
Participants, roles, and responsibilities will change over time, particularly as goals are met and new problems and opportunities emerge, but it’s critical that assignments are clear and understood at launch. Initial confusion about roles and responsibilities could set the program off on the wrong foot and reduce the overall likelihood of sustained success.
In this article we define five common roles for a successful innovation program: program management team, executive sponsor(s), moderator(s), expert(s), and contributors. For each of these roles we describe the responsibilities and importance of the role, and offer a “Pro Tip” for each.
Familiarizing yourself with these common roles and associated responsibilities will help you find the right individuals for each position and identify potential leaders once your program is in full swing.
Role: Program Management Team
To identify stakeholders, configure software, define processes, assign moderators, and market internally.
Why They’re Important
Most innovation programs are overseen by a central group that facilitates, organizes, and manages the overall program. This program management team provides many crucial functions such as establishing structure and direction, internal marketing of the program, training and oversight on any processes or software used in the program, and, importantly, identifying and working with other stakeholders such as sponsors and moderators.
Because the program management team sees a strong and ongoing role for innovation in their organization, they’re often the ones breathing life into and driving support for this program. They’re also tasked with designing a framework so that the program aligns with organizational goals and is poised for success. These key pieces must be defined and solidified before engaging larger communities in innovation.
The program management team also communicates the successes of the program, and of individual contributors, to the entire group. This is an essential activity, and is often the most important force for sustaining the program over an extended period of time.
Building excitement for your innovation program is an internal marketing effort, which begins with an effective program name. The program name should speak to the qualities you’re looking to bring out from the people contributing to the program, and should be consistent with your internal culture. Market the program by using this name in posters in the office, in cards or flyers to put on people’s desks, and in any other way you can make the program real.
Role: Executive Sponsor
To champion the program, clear obstacles, motivate contributors, and recognize great contributions.
Why They’re Important
The goal of any innovation program is to reach outcomes and, while these can vary (e.g. product improvements, operational performance, customer retention), at some point you’ll need the right decision-making figures providing support for the eventual implementation of an idea within the business. Without support from an executive sponsor or sponsors, an innovation program may not have the necessary budget or resources to be sustained. In addition to addressing resource concerns, executive buy-in provides the energy to propel the program through time. The executive sponsor ensures decisions and, ultimately, action; without action the program risks devolving into (perhaps) an interesting place to have conversations. The goal of an innovation program, however, is action, and ultimately positive change.
Without the right backing from the top levels of the organization, it may be difficult to get the support your initiative needs, thus ideas just go into a black hole, which does little to persuade employees of the program’s importance.
Have the sponsor record a video, even if just from your phone, explaining why the program is important to the organization, and to him or her personally. People connect to stories, and hearing someone describe the reasoning for the program launch, as well as their personal connection to it, is a big motivating factor for contributors.
To manage the day-to-day activity of the innovation program; to provide constant feedback to contributors while directing Ideas through the different stages of evaluation; to provide your community with transparency about the process and decisions made with regard to the Ideas being reviewed.
Why They’re Important
Moderators are responsible for establishing context, both non-time-bound Challenges and Challenges that have time constraints, as well as progressing Ideas through the evaluation process towards decisions. The moderator’s work—managing focused non-time-bound Challenges, posing relevant time-bound Challenges to the community, and closing the feedback loop with decision-making—sustains the innovation program over time.
An innovation program reaches into sub-communities in your organization—the HR team may be running one Challenge, while the product team and 10 key customers are participating in another, and the entire organization in yet a third. Moderators also operate within the sub-communities—while Mary may own HR within the innovation program, and thus be the moderator of an HR Challenge, she may only be a contributor in other contexts.
Moderators won’t always have final approval authority, though they’re essential for keeping Ideas moving through a decision-making process and keeping contributors in the loop about Ideas they’ve contributed or supported. The best moderators own the decision-making process, and know which internal experts to call on to supply additional information to an Idea, or which executive to hit up for budget to help move a compelling Idea through.
You will want to assign the role of a moderator to individuals who are very passionate about a particular Challenge or are heavily invested in seeing an outcome realized. Their commitment to a particular Challenge means they’re more likely to stay engaged in discussions and responsive to Idea contributors. They are also best for defining selection criteria for Ideas, making empowered decisions, moving Ideas into action, and closing the feedback loop that contributors crave.
To evaluate specific Ideas in their area of expertise when called on by moderators.
Why They’re Important
Evaluating Ideas and making decisions is the most important function of your innovation program. And while moderators are ultimately responsible for moving Ideas through the decision-making funnel, experts provide the valuable insights and supply metrics necessary for deciding whether an Idea or group of Ideas deserves further consideration.
Experts should be identified up front and managed so as to not overload them with too much evaluation work. It’s important to set expectations with experts, so they understand their role in the process and are ready to evaluate Ideas when called upon. Establish selection criteria up front—are you looking for Ideas that meet a certain budget constraint or time to market? Discuss these with experts so that they’re prepared to evaluate Ideas along these criteria.
While often internal, there are times when external experts can be effectively called upon to help supply information towards building a business case on an Idea. Make sure the software platform you choose for your program supports bringing in people external to your organization to specific Challenges, while not exposing them to all of your protected Innovation Program.
To participate in the program, respond to and address Challenges, contribute Ideas, participate in discussions, vote on Ideas, and volunteer to execute approved Ideas.
Why They’re Important
You can’t crowdsource solutions to problems and open new doors to opportunity without a crowd! These people—the contributors to your program—provide the energy, the content, and the organic filtering of Ideas that allow you to meet your goals.
Importantly, your contributors can vary by Challenge. The HR team may be the appropriate audience for one Challenge, and the entire company may be more appropriate for contributing to another.
The larger the audience of contributors for a particular Challenge, the greater the chance for serendipity—the classic case of someone, unrelated to the specifics of the issue at hand, coming up with a breakthrough insight or innovation. Be aware though, that with a wider reach comes increased noise: by including HR in your marketing Challenge, for example, you are increasing the likelihood of lateral thinking but you may also be exposing people to a Challenge they’re not interested or qualified in.