How to Start and Sustain a Network of Innovation Champions

By Scott Kirsner |  March 22, 2016

We convened a call recently, at the request of one of our subscribers, to discuss what are often called “innovation champion” or “innovation catalyst” networks. In global organizations, these networks can help a central innovation team:

  • Promote the innovation agenda, including events and competitions
  •  Train others in innovation methodologies and tools, like design thinking or lean startup
  •  Work with customers or business partners to create new products and services
  •  Scout market trends, disruptive startups, or otherwise gather market intelligence.

Our call participants came from Fortune 500 companies in energy, professional services, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, consumer electronics, and telecommunications, as well as one government agency and one large urban hospital. To encourage maximum sharing, we said we’d leave their company names out of this write-up.

In sharing what their companies are doing, they said there are six main questions that must be answered in creating a champions network:

  1. What is the champion’s role?
  2. How will you recruit or find champions?
  3. How will you train them and keep them connected with each other and the central innovation group?
  4. What are the benefits to them? How are they rewarded?
  5. How will you measure or otherwise share the impact the network has?
  6. How will you sustain the program over time?

Below are some of the ways a handful of companies that have already created networks of champions have answered those questions. If you’ve taken a different approach, please drop us an e-mail (we’ll keep your name and company name anonymous), or post a comment below (which will not be anonymous.)

What is the Champion’s Role?

At a global telecom company: “We have a team of 50 innovation champions. When we founded the program, we realized that we wanted to embed innovation into the entire culture. We have intentionally kept our central innovation team small, and built the ability to execute the innovation deliverables on the Champion Program. …In the past year we actually recognized that there are two different roles within our organization. One is more customer-focused, using design thinking to run innovation workshops and do thought leadership. The other is an innovation agent, which is more focused on delivering innovation projects.”

At a major pharma company: “In our program, we teach creative problem-solving, design thinking, as well as lean experimentation. We wanted to do two things. One was get teams working on specific, discrete business problems they they are facing, that they needed to solve. The other was to develop a network of champions. The champions were trained, over several days, in these different tools, techniques, mindsets, behaviors, so that they can lead from the table, as well as the front of the room. There have been literally hundreds of sessions run by our network of champions worldwide. The network itself has ballooned to more than 500 people worldwide.”

Champions at one financial services company help facilitate the company’s ‘Shark Tank’ idea pitch program, run think tanks, and train other employees.

At a large urban hospital, the former Chief Innovation Officer said: “The goal of the ambassador program…was [finding people] who can really connect with the core [innovation] program and reach deep into [their] department, and find people who didn’t know about the [innovation] resources that were available. They would act as communication liaisons for us to bring information into the department. What we were really hoping for were people that were good connectors and facilitators.”

How Will You Recruit or Find Champions?

One key question is whether champions will be identified by department heads or business unit execs, or whether they will step forward as volunteers.

At the hospital, “we asked each clinical department to appoint a liaison to be an ambassador back to our core innovation acceleration program. What we found is that department heads, which I guess would be analogous to a business unit, usually sent up their most innovative person, whoever was working on innovation already. A lot of these people are already known to us and were already working with us.”

However, this executive added, “I don’t think that we got necessarily the optimal group. We started to think about having more than one ambassador for each department. One of the challenges we also faced is, sometimes ambassadors just wanted to work on their project, and not so much to be a facilitator, and a communicator, and a conduit for the central programs. There’s a lot of value in volunteer ambassadors, and maybe the optimal thing would have been to have both assigned and volunteer ambassadors in each department.”

At the pharma company: “The attrition rate [with our program] has been much, much higher when somebody was somebody was ‘volun-told’ to do it [by their boss to be a champion,] versus when they had requested it. We’ve found it’s also important to get the manager’s approval. It sounds very bureaucratic, and I know it is, but the unfortunate obstacles when you have a manager that just keeps getting in the way and saying you don’t have time, it’s going to become a big headache.”

He described his champion network as being largely “a volunteer corps. They have to commit 5 to 10 percent of their time, and it requires their manager’s approval, and it gets put into their incentives, or their variable pay structure.”

One key characteristic of champions, this executive continues, “is incredible curiosity.” To understand what to look for, he recommends the book by Hal Gregersen, Clay Christensen, and Jeff Dyer, “The Innovator’s DNA.”

Team-building is important. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to coalesce the ambassador program, with speed-dating [exercises to get to know each other,] and other activities to really make them feel integrated into a cohesive group,” the hospital executive told us.

“Passion, for us, is actually the biggest determinant,” said one telecom executive, “because no matter what the obstacles are, there are going to be obstacles when you’re doing corporate innovation.”

How Will You Train Them and Keep Them Connected?

Call participants described training programs that have in-person and online elements, often leveraging outside consultancies to help create a curriculum.

“Initially, [training involved] us going to Dubai for example, and the folks in the Middle East and Africa would come there, and we would train them to be champions,” said the pharma exec. “It would be over the course of three days. [Recently], we’ve created a virtual training model, which complements the live training model. There are videos, and there’s a lot of game mechanics built in where they have to not only answer questions, but they can interact with other people. They actually have to go through that before they can even get into the live training.”

Not everyone makes it through the program, he continued. “What we’ve learned is that not everybody who says, ‘I want to be nominated,’ or nominate themselves to become a champion turn out to become champions. It’s unfortunate because you’ve invested in them, they’ve given up the time, and they either realized that they don’t want to be running a session, or they don’t have the time, or their manager has recanted and decided they are not the right fit.”

Let the alumni work with the newbies. “We incorporate [alumni] with the new people being trained to create a network effect of new and existing champions, interacting and helping mentor and apprentice one another. It is high-touch. There is a decent bit of travel, a decent bit of labor, a lot of effort,” said the pharma exec.

What is the Value Proposition for Champions? How Will They be Rewarded?

What we heard from call participants is that champions tend to be motivated by career mobility and skill development — a sense that participating in a network will help them learn new things and get face time with customers, business partners, and senior management in a way they might not otherwise. A few companies, however, have tied the work that champions do for the program into those employees’ variable pay structure.

“A lot of people are interested in doing something that allows them to lead sessions,” said the pharma exec. “This actually gives them some of the skills. We focus on facilitation skills. We expose them to improv acting, which is really the distillation of being able to facilitate in the moment when circumstances change.””The other thing that we talked about, which in a large company is very relevant, is that if you are a champion and you’re based in [a far-off outpost], and you want to get exposed to [different parts of the business, and different functions.] You can end up running a workshop for the vice president of a manufacturing business, or a technology business,” he continued.

In addition, starting in 2016, “it’s part of their incentive or variable pay. They actually get paid on what they’re doing, so as long as they set it in their objectives and their manager supports it.”

Reputational benefits and recognition are also part of the lure of participating — and letting employees participate, this executive said. “Their managers, when they see that it’s actually driving business, or it’s actually doing something disruptive in their organization that hasn’t been done before, it makes the manager look good, and it also makes the individual in their organization look good. They get highlighted, and [while] it sounds kitschy, we have an awards program. The awards get socialized, and there’s a lot of recognition attraction around those words. That also is another mechanism.”

Another executive added, “The more that you can get people exposed to different areas of the business, different areas of the company, understanding other problems that they weren’t even aware that the company was facing, and being exposed to all that information then allows them, as individuals, to be able to be more creative, to think of new options, and to make new connections that they wouldn’t have been able to make before. That’s a great benefit.”

At the urban hospital, “What we offered the folks that were in our innovation ambassador program was additional education training about innovation, and also the rewards we provided to them. Access to activities…the chance to attend conferences, to work together as a group.”

The telecommunications exec said that only the top 10 to 20 percent of champions get financial, or “non-intrinsic” rewards. “We’re always looking at the engines of [monetary] rewards. For those top people, you have to recognize their commitment to the program, and keep them involved and engaged as far as getting visibility and spending time with the senior leadership team, as well as sometimes the financial piece.”

“In addition to rolling out internal training and development which focus goes on giving the people the skills, we’ve used gamification as well, to incentivize them to execute based on those skills,” this exec continued. “We have levels one through five with reward programs, including things like mentorship with senior leadership members, and the top three champions will be coming for a Silicon Valley innovation tour. We’re in the process of putting together an even more formal rewards structure, giving financial incentives for the people who are the top performers.”

In most organizations, there can be a tension between the champion’s day job and the time they spend being part of the network. “Even though we have senior leadership sponsorship,” one exec said, “when you get into the middle management, there’s often conflicts there. We’ve gone with the top-down and bottom-up approach. We ask the champions to advocate for their KPIs being embedded, and we have a pretty clear role and description of what that means. They ask for manager approval, but when you get to Q4 in any organization, there’s often competing priorities. That’s a challenge that I think is hard to crack, in most organizations.”

How Will You Measure or Otherwise Share the Impact the Network has?

Everyone who participated in the conference call agreed that measuring the impact of the champions network is difficult — but not impossible. Collecting success stories, and attaching cost savings or revenue growth to those, is important.

“We’ve been measuring impact from the very beginning, so we can talk about revenue uplift or projects in the pipeline…” That helps justify the time and effort that champions put into the program, the telecom exec said.

At one financial services company, “we are an [innovation] office of five, responsible for all 50,000 employees. We have about 46 innovation champions… We have a financial tracking goal that the innovation champions are responsible for helping to manage. That ties to the mission and vision that our board and our executive committee is looking to drive for revenue growth, for penetration, for cost savings. In addition to cultural change and engagement, it’s really showing return on investment.”

“One approach is measuring the number of sessions people run, the activity level, the number of ideas, the experiments that come out of sessions,” said the pharma industry exec. “You can look at it as a funnel of activity.” But self-reporting can be a poor way to gather data. As a result, one company said it was “looking at designing game mechanics where [people] not only get credit, but there’s actually rewards built in, leader boards and so on. We’re actually in the process of beginning to design that, with the hope of having it done by the end of Q2.”

Anecdotal examples of wins are worth collecting. “What’s the lift or boost that that’s given to the company?” one participant from the manufacturing industry said. “You want to share those stories, and to socialize them to demonstrate the impact.”

“I would say that the most powerful thing that we’ve done is less related to metrics and more to just recognition and incentivizing innovation, and that is identifying success stories and individuals who have participated in innovation,” the telecom exec said. “Not just providing articles in our newsletter, which we do, but also giving them real air-time and a lot of visibility in big meetings. …Shining the spotlight on innovators from the field, with or without metrics, just more of the storytelling is one of the big things that we’ve done to recognize our innovators.”

“When we get into the reporting, of course that’s when it starts to become a little bit more laborious,” this exec continued. “We’ve been nudging [people] towards creating global consistency and driving visibility into all of the impacts. We’ve created standardized tools, so if you want to get points [as part of a gamification initiative], you basically need to follow these specific methodologies and outputs that we have. Those output documents, then, are capturing the opportunities. We are then also doing games to drive them into Salesforce so that we can see what revenue [eventually is produced.] We’re also looking at things like executive relationships.”

An executive in the energy industry said, “I can still tell a story that says that this part of [our company] saved $100 million because of these kind of ideas. The key there is getting people to think in terms of potential future value.” The more that we socialize that, the more that we put those in news articles and stuff,the more that the [business units] say, “Hey, I want some of that, too.” The key is staying very broad with how you’re determining and saying what value is. For one company, it may be they saved $100 million dollars. Another company, there may be an intangible amount of goodwill that’s been created because. The more that you focus then on the stories, and have those quantitative aspects built into it, we found that to be a strong way of focusing on the metrics.”

How Will You Sustain the Program Over Time?

Training and developing new champions is a continual process, the pharma exec said, because “the pipeline can run dry pretty quickly. People move on to new roles.” In a company with roughly 500 innovation champions, “we have targets of training anywhere between 100 to 150 people new every year to keep replenishing that pipeline.”

How do you grow the network? “It’s like multi-level marketing,” another exec said. “Tell those people who are really good to find other people like them, and to get them to nominate themselves. That actually has been pretty successful so far. It’s a crude, blunt instrument, but it’s the best one we’ve had …”

As with everything else in a large organization, management support is essential. “For us,” said the telecom exec, “having the blessing of…the regional leadership team is important, because we’re asking these people to go and facilitate C-level workshops with our top customers. The rest of our organization needs to feel comfortable with them being the right person, as well. The CEO said he wants a hundred percent of the sales team to be innovation certified, which is obviously very light touch and mostly online… It helps to let everyone know that this is important in the organization.”