Why Aren’t Companies Getting Better At Breakthrough Innovation?

Beyond the Champion

Can you imagine a company today not having a marketing department? Just a few decades ago, marketing as a function, profession, and department did not exist. It wasn’t until the 1970s that marketing departments began to resemble anything like what we have today.

In the future, will we be saying the same thing about innovation departments? Professors Gina O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Lois Peters think so. In their 2018 book Beyond the Champion: Institutionalizing Innovation Through People, they argue that innovation lies at the heart of competitiveness. It needs to be treated as a distinct function, and deserves its own approach to talent management. For companies looking to grow and succeed, getting better at innovation is a constant, nagging, and critically important challenge.

Beyond the Champion is the culmination of a four-year study and two decades of related research. O’Connor, Corbett, and Peters conducted more than 600 interviews with innovators at leading companies, including Corning, DuPont, GE, Rubbermaid, PepsiCo, and others. Their work has influenced the ISO 9000’s guidance on innovation, and is taught on numerous campuses worldwide. As a result of their research, the authors are more convinced than ever that healthy organizations cannot rely on lone-wolf intrapreneurs alone for innovation—it must be a team sport.

“The answer to boosting innovation isn’t just about R&D spending, but about building a robust innovation capacity.” -Gina O’Connor, Harvard Business Review
Read Gina O'Connor's HBR article

Read on for an excerpt from Beyond the Champion: 

Organizations that compete on the basis of innovation beyond incremental new product development need to create specific roles for their people. Not roles that put them in some form of an organizational straight jacket, but clear roles that allow them to get the job done for the company. Strategic innovation is a “team sport”: it’s so big that no one person has the skill set to do it all. Individuals want defined roles that allow them to take advantage of their innovative strengths—roles that give them some autonomy while still providing guidance for where they should invest their energies. The passion model is great, but it’s not enough in a large, established company.

Strategic innovation, by its very nature, requires change across many parts of the company. We are not talking about random acts of innovation. We are talking about harnessing the resources and power of the large company to effectively commercialize new-to-the-world products. Those decisions must be coordinated. Individuals need some structure and hierarchy in order to effectively drive innovation.

Our framework for innovation roles will clarify the work to be done and how it is best grouped according to specific skill types. Role clarity helps institutionalize innovation as a function rather than leaving it up to the whims of the current leadership. By institutionalizing innovation we mean that it becomes an ever-present activity in the company. Investments can be increased or decreased as the organization’s capacity allows, but the function itself should always be maintained. Historically organizations have started breakthrough innovation programs and then defunded them just as quickly. They become the program du jour, rather than part of the organization’s fabric. We need to move from pinning our hopes on breakthrough innovation to developing a strong competency in strategic innovation.

Since these role descriptions outline the types of activities necessary to move strategic innovations forward, they can become a tool to help those occupying them feel safe engaging in the types of activities that are the norm for innovation but largely unacceptable for the ongoing operations part of the business: experimenting, prototyping, trying new partnerships, and pivoting if necessary. By understanding these roles, we establish a culture of innovation such that people can operate without fear of reprisal. Clarifying the skills and responsibilities associated with each role will also provide a talent pool that can successfully move up through a career path associated with strategic innovation as needed. It’s a bit counterintuititve for sure, but it is just what our research shows. When you think it through, we believe you’ll agree.

You will see that we are not advocating overly rigid roles. As one person told us, “Give people a fence for where to play, but then it’s up to them.” What we’re offering is a blueprint for organizational design. It’s a place to start that has been distilled from research and observation. Once that blueprint and its basic principles are understood, the way it plays out in practice must fit the context of your organization. We believe the framework will bring clarity to what you already know through experience, help you design a more effective innovation function, and be able to capitalize on the investments in R&D and open innovation that your company has made but from which it has not fully benefited.

Attend Gina O’Connor’s Babson Executive Education program: Building a Capability for Breakthrough Innovation June 9-10, 2020.
Register Now

Posted in Insights

More from Insights »