When in charge of organizing innovation in a professional service organization, you have the challenging task of both catalyzing innovation and overseeing the innovation process. Keeping these two objectives in play can be a strenuous balancing act, but it does not have to be.
For innovation to thrive you need a framework that supports innovation activities and a process for execution. You need to make sure that innovation’s energy and resources are applied and directed towards achieving the organization’s strategic objectives. Whether the projects under its guidance are directed towards cost-saving, reaching a new client base, or providing novel services, the innovation management function has to ensure that they address the right problems and enact the best solutions for those objectives.
This function can become a balancing act because, on the one hand, you have to act as a catalyst to ensure innovation activities are initated and executed, while on the other hand you have to act as a traffic cop, to ensure projects in the program are executed properly and are worth the energy and resouces they consume.
- Identify opportunities within and outside the organization
- Ensure participation and support of the entire organization
- Diffuse successful applications so they benefit as many internal and external users as possible
- Create awareness, so clients and collaborators will reach out to your organization with innovative ideas or requests
Traffic cop function
- Ensure ongoing innovation activities contribute to the organization’s strategic goals, and help close the gap between where the organization is and wants to be
- Ensure that innovators work on the right problems and best solutions
- Monitor the steps taken in the transformation of ideas into actual applications, to make sure no aspects are overlooked
- Safeguard innovation resources, to make sure these are used in the most effective and efficient way with maximum impact
Separation of powers
Most innovation management functions start off enthusiastically with the catalyst function. However, without giving consideration to the traffic cop function, your office will soon be overwhelmed with ideas and no mechanism for sorting through them. Soon you will be disappointing innovaters because you cannot serve them all, you may be blamed for playing favorites, and, worst of all, you will have to deal with unhappy senior management because the innovation management function does not meet its expectations.
The history of governments has taught us the importance of the separation of powers. As an innovation manager, you cannot both foster the process and guide teams through it, and at the same time be the regulator of the process, denying access and making funding decisions.
The roles of catalyst and traffic cop are both essential, yet impossible to combine within the innovation management function. In the most optimistic scenario, combining the two leads to an unstable equilibrium, one that is very difficult to maintain.
Since giving up the supporting function would stop all innovation efforts, there is little that you can do to change the dynamics on that end. Fortunately, the traffic cop role offers more options for solutions that can help make the balancing act described above sustainable.
Internal Oversight Committee
Instead of the innovation management function deciding on which projects to support and fund, these decisions can be taken by an internal committee.
Pros: An internal committee knows the people and the projects and how these fit with the strategic objectives of the organization.
Cons: With only internal members to choose from, the pool and expertise of an internal committee can be limited. In addition, because they are internally staffed, these commitees can become political minefields.
External Steering Committee
Instead of internal people, you can also ask external people (or a combination of internal and external people) to decide which projects to support and fund.
Pros: External committee members can be sourced from a broad pool ensuring that the right mix of people sits at the table.
Cons: Due to time and other constraints, external committee members have limited information on which to base their decisions, i.e., typically only executive summaries, a summary of the development plan and a 10-minute pitch.
Process of self-selection
Instead of decision makers, the innovation champions get to decide whether or not to pursue their projects. For management this may sound odd and even risky, but it is common practice in entrepreneurship. It is the entrepreneur who decides whether to continue or give up on a start-up idea.
Pros: It’s a system of survival of the fittest from both an idea and innovation champion perspective, since it takes a lot of stamina to pull a project through and no artificial deadlines will hold it up.
Cons: It requires a lot of discipline on the part of the participants and guidance from the innovation center to help those who are less experienced succeed.
Obtaining a balance
None of the options described above are perfect. However, using a combination of all three will create a bureaucratic nightmare that serves no purpose.
On the other hand, each of the options help to make the balancing act between catalyst and traffic cop required by an innovation unit easier and more sustainable.
These options also allow the innovation unit to focus on just one aspect of the balance—and on being a catalyst for innovation.
Struggling with the balancing act of being a catalyst for innovation and traffic cop of the process? We will gladly share our expertise and experience to help you create a well-balanced innovation system.