There is a lot of talk nowadays about closing the so-called innovation “gap” or the difference between what leaders say they want in terms of a new product, service, process, or business model innovation and what their organizations actually deliver.
Organizations can, and often do, fail to meet their innovation goals for a number of reasons and, depending on where you get your daily fix of leadership articles, these reasons will vary.
Some studies, for example, talk about the absence of a well-articulated innovation strategy or the failure to understand the external environment. Others blame failing to set expectations right and “issues” with decision-making – yes, according to McKinsey, as many as 65% of senior executives are only "somewhat," "a little," or "not at all" confident about their innovation decisions.
Successfully sustaining (encouraging, managing, tracking, measuring…) innovation is no easy task. In today’s fast changing, multi-channel, multi-stakeholder world this process requires not only a variety of skills and profiles but often “constellations” of leaders too. In as follows, a summary of one of the most influential academic papers on the topic to help you learn more.
Image Source: Ken Miller Group
Published in the R&D Management Journal in 2001, “Teamwork for innovation: the ‘troika’ of promoters” by prof. Jürgen Hauschildt and Edgar Kirchmann is one of the most widely referenced studies on promoting innovation.
Building on prof. Eberhard Witte pioneering research in the field (the original “promoter model” was developed in 1973), the study put forward the following idea: managing innovation requires a careful division of labour between a number of champions (or promoters), who commit to the new product, service, process or business model innovation. How many champions does innovation need? In the authors’ view, the magic number is three. A “troika”.
Initially referring to a dyad, the “promoter model” was inspired by a few key observations about how (product) innovation unfolds.
First and foremost, researchers saw that new product development and similar innovation efforts came up against massive resistance in the organization, stimulating conflict. This resistance had its roots in workers’ ignorance and unwillingness to participate in or support the innovation process. Hence, the second observation: conflict management theory could provide useful tips of how to disseminate specific knowledge about innovation. That is, innovators would need to become educators and negotiators in order to win over reluctant colleagues, customers, suppliers, government officials – whoever happened to stand in the way of progress.
Soon, two key profiles emerged:
- The technology promoter – an individual that would hold the technical knowledge or input for the innovation process;
- and a power promoter – an individual typically from higher management that would “protect” the idea and win over reluctant colleagues and help overcome psychological barriers to innovation.
Together, the technology and power promoter, formed a “dyad” that enabled innovation to be successful.
The power of three
Half a century ago, dyad structures represented some 37% of all cases. More recent work (cited in Hauschildt and Kirchmann’s study), however, has shown that as many as 48% of innovation promoter structures represent dyads.
This increase, however, was not the full story. Even more efficient configurations were possible. Today, we acknowledge that innovation teams can contain anywhere between one and seven people, depending on the complexity of the project and the number of skills and stakes necessary. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, big pharma routinely assemble expert panels (sometimes also known as “customer tables”) that bring together experts from medical device development, sales, marketing, patient association representatives, patients, clinical trial managers etc. to determine when and how an innovation will fit a patient’s lifestyle.
The `Troika'-model of innovation promotors. Source: Hauschildt and Kirchmann, 2001
Having the new dynamics of innovation in mind (and very much in hindsight), Hauschildt and Kirchmann’s upgraded the original “promoter model”. In their view, for the innovation process to be successful, a third “link” was required. Sitting between the technology and power promoter, the process promoter could complement the dyad by translating the technical know-how into the language understood by the entire organization. This third “champion” could turn an idea into an action plan. Hence the “troika” (or triad) constellation.
Hauschildt and Kirchmann’s pioneering study and findings were based on questionnaires and interviews about product innovations. In total, 133 product innovations in 133 German firms were available for the empirical test and results showed that having separate process, power and technology promoters was the best means of ensuring innovation had intensive support and information transfer took place. These observations were compared to promoter-less structures or to sole technology promoters, among other constellations.
Despite its limited scope, the “troika of promoters” model is widely applicable today. Managers can easily emulate the initial study, asking employees which colleagues are intensively contributing to promoting the innovation process by means of either: hierarchical power, specific technical knowledge or act as active mediators between these two roles.
Extra reading tip: Most executives say they are promoters, not leaders.
Understanding how the complex innovation work is split between individuals with complementary skill sets is essential to success. At the same time, understanding what incentivises individuals to take on these roles is equally important. And then all the other questions in between, those mater too:
- What events stimulate individuals to act as promoters?
- How do promoters assemble in the first place and how is personal fit determined?
- Under which conditions are promoter structures dissolved?
Having an answer to the above can help advance the good practice of managing innovation even further.
As firms continue to cooperate more intensely and as the “rules of the innovation game” change, new forms of resistance are likely to emerge, as are the corresponding profiles to tackle the innovation challenge. From “relations promoters”, “alliance champions” (mentioned in Hauschildt and Kirchmann’s study), and boundary spanning technology and market-related relationship promoters, to communities (networks and ecosystems) and their ability to create, shape and disseminate innovations, cooperation will take exciting new forms in the years to come.