Nine Critical Roles Your Company Needs for Strategic Innovation


It’s a well-known fact that innovation is vital in today’s business world. And, strategic innovation requires skilled people. In the right roles. With clear paths to advance careers. Yet, a major challenge to businesses lies in the way they select, develop, and reward these people.

In their book Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation Through People, Babson Professors Gina O’Connor and Andrew Corbett identify nine key roles that businesses must fill to achieve strategic innovation—a must in today’s business world.

“We are talking about the people who take inventions and turn them into commercial reality,” O’Connor says, describing employees who contribute to strategic innovation.

She also points out a common problem. It’s hard for companies to manage strategic innovation talent when they don’t develop key innovation roles, both at the leadership level, middle management, and below.

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Functions. People. Roles. Strategic Innovation.

O’Connor’s book draws on the results of a four-year study. She combines that with decades of additional academic research, hundreds of interviews with corporate innovators, and ongoing consulting to help companies build the capability. Her work has influenced the ISO 9000’s guidance on innovation, and is taught on numerous campuses worldwide.

O’Connor outlines three core functions needed for strategic innovation: discovery, incubation, and acceleration.

Discovery can be thought of as the business concept development phase. Incubation turns the concept into a business proposal. Acceleration is the competency of scaling the emerging business as it picks up steam in the market. These three organizational competencies lay the foundation for strategic innovation and breakthrough innovation.

Within each of these, there are key roles and responsibilities. Companies must fill these roles. They must set career tracks. Only once these systems are in place can companies achieve true strategic innovation on a sustained basis.

Strategic Innovation Roles

So, who do you need on your team in order to achieve strategic innovation? According to O’Connor, there are nine unique roles.

  1. Opportunity Generator
    This person talks about strategic options for the company to consider. She speaks in a way that other people will understand. She translates the work that R&D does to a broader audience.
  2. Opportunity Domain Leader
    This person shapes the opportunities generated by their team into larger business platforms.
  3. Opportunity Generator
    This person presents the company with new business possibilities that are game-changing. She also ensures that new ideas have the right climate to grow.
  4. New Business Creation Specialist
    This person takes opportunities from discovery and tests them from every angle.
  5. New Business Platform Leader
    This person positions the learning from the tests into a strategy for a new business platform and executes on it. These new business platforms will reinvent the company over time.
  6. Director of Incubation
    This senior role manages a portfolio of new business platforms. She also looks after the health of the entire strategic innovation system.
  7. Functional Manager
    This person has deep experience in an area of expertise. She is a creative problem-solver who is on the hook for delivering.
  8. General Manager, New Business
    This is the manager of the emerging businesses. She must deliver just like any manager, though she is not part of the mainstream.
  9. Innovation Council
    This is a group of senior leaders responsible for governing the strategic innovation function and advancing new businesses that will ensure the company has a promising future. Investing in strategic innovation is likely to gain more traction across the top of a business.

The book also maps these roles onto clear pathways to advance careers. The result? A blueprint for strategic innovation that any organization can use to become more systematic with respect to strategic innovation.

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