Innovation roles

Wooden matches of different colors

What are innovation roles?

Innovation roles are formal or semi-formal positions/functions within an organisation that are recognised as helping the innovation process. They may be an explicit part of job descriptions or may be more informal roles that people voluntarily take on.
Innovation roles may be connected to specific Innovation Teams or functions relating to Ideas Management Systems.

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How do innovation roles help the innovation process?

Innovation roles can help the innovation process by providing clarity around the expectations of who does what in an innovation process – in the case of an agency or organisation, it might involve who to go to for help if you have an idea you want to introduce.
Innovation roles can assist across all stages of the innovation process.

  • Idea generation (finding, adapting or creating the ideas) – Explicit roles can help idea generation by identifying the support available to idea proponents (those who come up with the idea) in refining or improving their idea
  • Idea selection (picking which ideas to use) – Clear roles can also help with the selection process. If it is not clear where an idea goes, or who is responsible for an idea, then it is difficult for an idea to get past the generation stage. There needs to be someone with the responsibility for considering the idea and a process by which it can be selected, deferred or rejected
  • Idea implementation (putting the ideas into practice) – Knowing who is responsible for what in the innovation process can also aid the implementation phase. The roles can provide clarity over who is responsible for the implementation of an idea and how that fits with their existing job or responsibilities
  • Sustaining ideas (keeping the ideas going) – Role identification is important for ensuring an idea’s implementation is sustained. Many ideas can come adrift after their initial implementation unless the ongoing responsibilities for integrating them into the broader operations of the agency are clear
  • Idea diffusion (spreading the ideas and the insights about them) – Knowing who does what is also important for idea diffusion and the spreading of ideas through the organisation. Set roles can make it easier for ideas to move between silos by facilitating channels for idea exchange. Defined roles can also make it easier for those coming up with ideas to know what has been tried before (or previously rejected), what has worked or why it has worked

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What do innovation roles involve?

Innovation roles involve identifying specific functions, capabilities and supporters within an agency’s innovation process. This might also involve identifying how the roles relate with each other, any supporting systems or resources in place, and any mandate/expectations of the roles from the agency’s executive.
Roles may be formal and incorporated into performance plans. Alternatively, if the innovation responsibilities are less developed within an agency or organisation, they may be informal roles that people voluntarily take on and do out of interest.
Where possible, innovation roles are likely to be aided by official ‘backing’ within the agency so that the individuals performing the role can relate it to their official responsibilities.

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Types of innovation roles

Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service identified the following possible roles and responsibilities within an organisation. An individual may play more than one of these roles at any one time.

  • Idea sources - The person or people with the idea. The source’s appreciation of the innovation process may be significant or it may be non-existent, as may be their understanding of other interacting processes, such as business planning and corporate requirements. The source may or may not want to take the idea forward themselves
  • Idea coaches - People distributed throughout the agency who support sources as they try to get the idea adopted or implemented by the agency. The coaches are better versed in corporate processes than the source and help the source understand what needs to be done to progress the idea towards acceptance. Coaches may also help to put the source into contact with possible champions and help find a sponsor
  • Champions - People who are known to be supportive of innovation, who have the time and resources available to take up the cause of the idea, and who can negotiate the hurdles being faced by the idea
  • Sponsors - Someone who has the requisite level of authority and resources for the idea to be investigated and possibly trialled. In the Australian Public Service, this is most likely to be a member of the SES (Senior Executive Service)
  • Agent provocateur - Someone who can identify and highlight policies and decisions in the agency that hinder innovation and lead an effort to get those blockages recognised, and then removed or addressed as appropriate. Such a role will need to be mandated to be effective. The provocateur is ideally a ‘velvet sledgehammer’ – excellent at managing people and making persuasive arguments, but not afraid to enforce actions when necessary
  • Innovation team - The agency’s team of innovation facilitators, who might be responsible for tasks such as providing advice and assistance to sources, coaches and champions, administering any system for managing ideas, advising the provocateur or agency executive on challenges raised and options available, supporting local innovation communities of practice, reporting on innovation activity, and networking with such teams in other agencies. Team members may or may not have additional roles within the organisation.

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Potential problems

The following are some possible problems that may be encountered in introducing or managing innovation roles in an organisation.

  • Not part of official role – There may be problems if those undertaking the roles do not have it as part of their official responsibilities. This can make it difficult for them to provide time or energy to undertake the role. This may not matter as much if a number of people undertake that specific role and where there may be spare capacity with some at different times
  • Lack of clear expectations – If the roles do not have clear guidance on what the roles involve, there may be problems with how the roles fit together, or the uncertainty over the level of support that can be expected
  • Training/support – If the roles are voluntary positions, support may need to be provided for training. If the innovative drive of an organisation is at its early stages it is unlikely that those chosen or who volunteer for the roles will have all of the skills already needed
  • Diversity – Different people will have different innovation strengths (and weaknesses). Some individuals might be able to carry their idea throughout the entire innovation process unaided, but most will need assistance at some or most stages. This assistance may not just be with innovation but also with other processes – e.g. financial, technical, policy or legal help. Innovation roles may need to reflect this and have a range of people with differing strengths in the innovation process and associated skills.

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The following is a checklist of issues that might be considered before formalising innovation roles.

Prior to Introduction

  • Is there a clear and known innovation process in your organisation?
  • Is it clear how the different roles will support the innovation process?
  • Do these identified roles have the endorsement and support of the agency executive?

Filling the Roles

  • Have you identified what skills those undertaking the roles will need?
  • If the positions are voluntary, is it clear what is expected of them?
  • Is there an identified reporting structure for those in the roles?

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Further reading

  • Innovation Roles” a blog post by Jeffrey Phillips on the innovation roles and capabilities needed when introducing innovation into an organisation.
  • The Nine Innovation Roles” a blog post by Braden Kelly with an excerpt from his book Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire on nine different innovation roles that people play.
  • Innovation Roles: The Bulldozer” a blog post by Jeffrey Phillips on the ‘bulldozer’ role. This post also links to his posts on other roles – the Matador, the Futurist, the Jester and the Tinkerer roles.
  • Provocateur of Systemic Innovation” a blog post by George Siemens on establishing a role of a provocateur of systemic innovation.

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Innovation roles examples

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) has an ideas management system called I-Gen – a systematic and coordinated approach to managing ideas.1 To support this innovation system within the agency there are a number of roles that are taken on by staff (generally in addition to their full time positions).

  • Sponsor/Champion - A Deputy Secretary who is the overarching sponsor, providing support and advocating innovation within and without the Department.
  • I-Gen Team - Responsible for driving innovation within the Department, facilitating the innovation process, reporting to the agency’s Executive on ideas and progress
  • I-Gen Coordinators - Staff with responsibility for being a contact for the I-Gen system within their region or division. These people report on related activities, help drive the ideas in their work areas and share their skills and contact details on the I-Gen site for those seeking help with their ideas
  • I-Gen Mentors - The mentors are responsible for assisting proponents with their ideas. They also share their skills and contact details on the I-Gen site so that idea proponents can contact them for help
  • Idea Proponents - The people who have put forward ideas and who are helped by the I-Gen team, the coordinators, the mentors or other colleagues to progress their ideas.

[1] See "Ideas to actions: DAFF's innovation experience" a blog post by Brant Smith from July 2010 on the I-Gen system at for further information