Beyond the Champion
Institutionalizing Innovation Through People
Gina Colarelli O'Connor, Andrew C. Corbett, and Lois S. Peters



For four years, we had put twenty companies under a microscope when Mike Giersch, vice president, strategic planning at IBM, turned to us and said, “You are sitting in the catbird seat!” The companies that had participated in our research had sent several representatives to hear results, debate them, and provide feedback. Just like that, we were the ones being studied.

Mike’s right. We’ve been privileged. We are academics who live and breathe breakthrough innovation. We’ve had the opportunity to be students of it for more than twenty years, in partnership with many companies that are committed to building a sustainable capability for breakthrough innovation but find themselves fighting an uphill battle. Everyone blames senior management for the starts and stops, the lack of persistence. But we have arrived at a somewhat different conclusion. Of course senior leaders want breakthrough innovations. The trouble is, companies don’t know how to produce them.

We don’t know enough about the day-to-day activities of those involved in breakthrough innovation to recognize its emergence. We don’t know what to expect of project teams working on potential breakthroughs. We don’t really know what innovation expertise is, or how to cultivate it in our companies. We don’t know how to communicate our progress to external stakeholders, either. So companies waste time, money, and other resources in their attempts. Eventually senior leaders lose patience.

This book is about a constant, nagging, critically important problem for managers of large, mature companies: how to increase their companies’ success at commercializing breakthrough, step-out, game-changing, radical innovation. It’s also about evolutionary innovation . . . anything beyond new product development that results in incremental innovation. It’s about creating blue oceans based on technological advantage. It’s about creating whole new platforms of growth for the company. It’s about securing the company’s future health through innovation. It’s about managing under conditions of high degrees of ambiguity toward an objective of creating innovations that truly change people’s lives for the better. We view breakthrough innovation as a required organizational capability, additive to companies’ current processes for producing incremental innovations. We are not suggesting those capabilities be traded off, replaced, or diminished. But to succeed over time, companies must renew themselves, rejuvenate their businesses, and create whole new platforms of businesses. They cannot rely only on path-dependent growth patterns that follow current trajectories into the future. They must invest in path-creating, disruptive innovations, and build capabilities to ensure they do so constantly and at low risk to the company. They must invest in strategic innovation. A great variety of talent and creativity is required to accomplish this, some of which is not traditionally recognized or rewarded by large established corporations.

During the course of our study, we arrived at some strongly held perspectives about what large, mature, industrial companies must do to institutionalize a capability for innovation. But before we delve into that, we want to tell you why and how we conducted this research, and how our thinking has evolved about breakthrough innovation itself so you’ll understand what underlies our insights and conclusions.

From Radical to Breakthrough to Strategic Innovation

When we started researching this challenging and important problem in 1995, large, established companies had learned to excel at new product development processes that result in incremental innovations, which sustain current lines of business. But they’d lost their way when it came to game changers that delivered new-to-the-world benefits with the potential to revolutionize an industry. We labeled those as radical innovations in order to communicate the degree of change in the market and in the company that was typically required to deliver such a magnitude of value. We and others often juxtaposed radical against incremental innovation to clarify the differences between the two. Over time we’ve used many terms to infer that high level of innovativeness, including game-changing innovation, transformational innovation, and breakthrough innovation. And there are degrees of innovativeness that fall between the two extremes. Figure P.1 shows the two as endpoints along a continuum of uncertainty and terminology for points in between.

What we know about any of those on the right end of the continuum is that they have to be managed differently than new product development, because of the high degree of uncertainty on so many dimensions that breakthrough innovations face over the course of their development. It requires a completely different management approach from the one that executes along an operational excellence mentality.

The term radical intimidated people, not just because of the unintended political interpretations of it, but because of the extreme level of change it inferred. In fact, it’s a rare occurrence. However, managing for high levels of innovativeness with varying degrees of uncertainty is not so rare. It’s necessary for companies to survive.

Over time and as we’ve continued to watch companies evolve a capability for innovations that require managing under uncertain and ambiguous conditions, we have come to focus on the term strategic innovation. By that we mean innovation undertaken by the organization that is intentional and can provide whole new platforms of growth through major market impact. Its objective is to create new businesses for the company, not just a new product within a current platform. That means that any strategic innovation initiative will likely create changes within the market, use novel technology or new combinations of technology, access resources and know how the company may not have, and will most likely upset the organizational applecart in one way or another. We see innovation on a continuum, and strategic innovation captures efforts that are beyond incremental up to and including new-to-the-world breakthroughs. Truly breakthrough innovation happens rarely, but innovation that becomes the force of corporate rejuvenation and alters the game in the marketplace needs to be continually fostered and developed. You will notice that we use the term breakthrough innovation when referring to projects or initiatives that could have had such an impact but were not handled with a strategic mind-set. Breakthroughs are great, but their likelihood of success is low if they’re not also considered strategic.

FIGURE P.1   Types of Innovation Along the Uncertainty Spectrum


Can you imagine an organization today that would not have a marketing department or strongly developed marketing capability? 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. We see the need for a similar evolution for innovation, and we will take you on our path of discovery in this book. Innovation is critical to the firms of today and will be the lifeblood of the firms of tomorrow. Firms can longer afford to have sporadic, half-hearted innovation efforts. With innovation at the heart of competitiveness, organizations need it to be institutionalized through its people, organization, and design. Strategic innovation is about generating the businesses of the future for the company, and it needs to be considered its own function.

A Trio of Research Projects

This is the third book resulting from twenty-plus years of beating the innovation drum. Our thinking has evolved greatly, and our message has become clearer. Obviously, companies cannot expect to benefit from breakthrough discoveries and inventions unless they invest to commercialize them. To do that, companies need to build an infrastructure that can create new markets, business models, partnerships, strategies, and internal organizational arrangements. That infrastructure requires a certain set of skills and architecture, which are currently absent in most organizations.

Our research program began in 1995 with a generous grant from the Sloan Foundation and the sponsorship of the Industrial Research Institute,1 a professional organization of R&D managers, directors, and chief technology officers of large established companies and governmental research labs. Together with the IRI we defined breakthrough innovations as those having the potential to offer one or more of the following: (a) new to the world performance features; (b) 5–10 times improvement in known features, or (c) 30–50 percent reduction in cost. The latter two criteria open up new application domains for the technology, enabling whole new platforms for growth.

The first book examines the processes that project teams applied as they undertook the challenge of commercializing a potential breakthrough innovation.2 Our unit of analysis was the project itself. IRI members volunteered projects from within their companies that senior leadership identified as potential breakthroughs. None were commercialized yet. Some were just getting started in the development process.

We followed twelve projects in ten companies for five years. The companies included Air Products, Analog Devices, DuPont, GE, General Motors, IBM, Nortel Networks, Polaroid, Texas Instruments, and United Technologies. We interviewed project team leaders, members and their sponsors repeatedly . . . 186 interviews in all. During that time, some of the projects were killed off, as expected, and others met with varying degrees of success. Several changed the game in their industries. We investigated the challenges that teams faced and the ways they circumvented those challenges.

We identified four distinct dimensions of uncertainty that were pivotal to project management success: technical uncertainty, market uncertainty, resource uncertainty, and organizational uncertainty. From these a series of seven challenges for project leaders were described. The vast majority of projects we studied originated and progressed solely because of the strong will and persistence of a talented champion with ties to and protection from a senior management sponsor. Project teams and their leaders spent more time fighting against the norms of their companies, whose management systems, processes, and metrics were dedicated to responding to customer needs and operational excellence. These were not the norms and infrastructure needed for the high-uncertainty environment of breakthrough innovation. We concluded that companies could do a much better job of developing management systems and infrastructures that supported, rather than antagonized, innovation champions and their teams. We coined a term, radical innovation hub, to describe such a system. A hub is a central locus for breakthrough innovation activities: establishing, generating, and developing projects; providing coaching about dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty; accessing resources; networking; and gaining organizational legitimacy and receptivity for projects preparing to make the transition into business units or other receiving units.

In our view at the time, hub members would run interference between project teams and the mainstream organization and ensure that the connections with the mainstream organization occur as necessary so that the breakthrough was accepted into the company rather than rejected or ignored. The hub would develop the right kind of skills in people, oversee a portfolio of breakthrough projects, and set up appropriate governance mechanisms for each project and the portfolio. And it would play many other roles that we observed as gaps in companies’ abilities to develop breakthroughs today. We noted the beginnings of a hub in three of the companies we studied, but that was all. And each of those was snuffed out by the end of the study period. Interesting and discouraging.

Our second book focuses on companies that were attempting to develop management systems to promote repeated success with breakthrough innovation.3 We needed to know how companies that wanted a sustained breakthrough innovation capability were executing it. Was a hub the right approach? What alternatives were being tried? We went back to the IRI and proposed a second study. For this one, our unit of analysis was the company level, and the portfolio of breakthrough opportunities that was being managed through that system-level initiative.

We sought participation from companies that had a declared strategic intent to develop or evolve a sustainable breakthrough innovation capability. The majority of those that agreed to participate were just getting started. Twelve companies participated, including 3M, Albany International, Air Products, Corning, DuPont, GE, IBM, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Products, Kodak, MeadWestvaco, Sealed Air, and Shell Chemicals. Another set of companies joined soon after as a validation set. These included Bose, Dow Corning, Guidant, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, P&G, PPG, Rohm and Haas, and Xerox. Again we conducted regular interviews with all members of the innovation management system and those to whom they reported. We checked in with them regularly over a five-year period, and conducted 246 interviews over the course of that timeframe.

Grabbing Lightning is about building an innovation capability that will last. Company managers think of innovation as a process. In fact, new product development that results in incremental innovation can be treated as a process, since its approach fits into the normal systems and metrics of the mainstream company, whose objective is to convert its knowledge, customer loyalty, and experience into profits. But breakthrough innovation doesn’t lend itself to processes that emphasize leveraging the company’s current knowledge base, markets, and networks. New networks are required; new markets are to be created. Managers cannot project net present value or ROIs for early stage breakthroughs. There’s too much uncertainty about the development path, market formation, disruption, competitors, value propositions, market applications, manufacturing challenges, business models, partnerships, strategic fit, and a host of other innovation challenges.

Managing under uncertainty, and creating new rather than leveraging the familiar, is not just a chance occurrence. It doesn’t involve wandering blindly. Some people are very, very good at creating the new. They are excited by the prospect of charting courses in the unknown. So we arrived at the conclusion that, to be capable of breakthrough innovation, companies must develop an expertise in it, and to do that, it must be considered as and managed as a function, similar to marketing, R&D, purchasing, and legal. In fact, we observed that companies were, and are, beginning to do just that.

Researching Roles and Responsibilities for an Innovation Function

One of the key insights that came from the Grabbing Lightning work was that, of all the elements of the management system, the most challenging for organizations and innovators was talent management associated with people involved in developing and commercializing strategic innovation opportunities. Leaders repeatedly boast, “Our people are our most important asset!” Why, then, didn’t those involved in innovation experience that sentiment? What was this new “chief innovation officer” job title all about? There were clues that companies wanted to institutionalize a strategic innovation function through people but, again, didn’t yet have a framework for doing so.

We had just published a short article expressing some thoughts on ways this problem could be alleviated when we received an inquiry from the Thought Leadership Institute (TLI),4 a professional organization of human resource management professionals.5 The TLI leadership had seen the article and were interested in helping their member organizations develop the human capital for strategic innovation. Around the same time, we received an invitation from a member of the IRI, to take up another phase of the research. His call was timely, since we were bothered by the findings that people management was such a stumbling block.

To participate, companies had to have declared their strategic intent to evolve a breakthrough innovation capability, and had to have expressed concern about talent management issues. Nine IRI companies who volunteered met the criteria and joined. We also sought two companies in Europe that we were aware were pursuing talent development strategies and programs for breakthrough innovation. Participating companies include Bayer MaterialScience, Corning, DSM, DuPont, John Deere, GE, Grundfos, Newell Rubbermaid, Moen, PepsiCo, and Sealed Air Corporation.

In this study, we again focused on the person responsible for the breakthrough innovation management system, and requested that s/he identify all members associated with it, including at least one representative from the HR or organizational development function. Again, we visited each company and interviewed all those people our primary point of contact identified as participants in the innovation management system, and then asked each to identify others they knew of or accessed in the course of their work. We interviewed as many of those individuals as possible.

We asked people to describe their backgrounds, skills, career paths to date, current responsibilities, relationships with their supervisors, direct reports, and other points of interface. We asked about the frustrations with their current roles and their careers so far, their points of pride and success stories, and their professional aspirations. We asked about the expectations for the projects or initiatives they were working on, and for themselves. We inquired about succession planning and permanency of their role. A total of 181 interviews were conducted.

In the final months of the study, we contacted them all again to see what had happened to them. We tracked them on LinkedIn and via e-mail. When we couldn’t reach them, we asked their colleagues to connect us. Ultimately we learned the outcomes for all 141 participants.

This book’s focus is on the single biggest challenge that companies identified as they work to institutionalize a strategic innovation capability: that of developing and managing innovation-related talent. It’s back to people. While project champions are both the bane of their managers’ existence and the glory of their companies’ folklore, they are extremely rare. A healthy organization cannot rely on these unique individuals for its future growth platforms. Therefore, we set out to understand the roles that are emerging in innovation. We saw that many of those roles are as temporary and lilting as the wind. They are not institutionalized in companies today. Once the specific person who has filled that job moves on, the role dissolves. We have come to realize that companies can make major improvement in this arena, which we trust will dramatically improve their innovation outcomes. Without some permanency in innovation roles, how can companies ever develop an expertise for strategic innovation?

Chapter 1 of this book presents the problem of managing for high-uncertainty innovation, through recent examples, and takes a look at the approaches companies have tried that have not yet provided an answer. Chapter 2 sets up the framework of a management system for strategic innovation and alerts you to the recent progress in our understanding of how to manage this previously overwhelming objective. In Chapter 3 we return to the people aspect in detail and give you a bird’s-eye view of the issues that those in innovation trenches face regarding their careers. You may be surprised by some of those stories. In Chapter 4 we offer a framework of roles and responsibilities for an innovation function that follows from an understanding of what expertise is actually required to make it come to fruition. Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 delve deeply into each of those roles, and provide not only company leadership but also the organizational development and HR communities with rich information to help design those jobs and select the appropriate talent. In Chapter 9 we take up the difficult challenge of developing and rewarding innovation talent. We address the issue of career paths because we see over and over again that the rare talent that does exist in innovation functions may be stalled from a career progression perspective, but need not be. Finally in Chapter 10 we summarize these thoughts and go on to ask what other institutions can be doing to increase the speed with which an innovation profession and innovation function come to fruition.

You may find our prescriptions controversial. As we’ve presented our findings and suggestions for action in conferences, companies, and innovation summits, we have been challenged by audiences, even by our supporters at the IRI. But the more they heard, and worked with these ideas, the more they began to agree with our logic. We hope you will, too. And if you don’t, please do let us know. We continue to learn. And, together, we innovate.


1. See

2. Richard Leifer, Christopher McDermott, Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Lois Peters, Mark P. Rice, and Robert W. Veryzer,Radical Innovation: How Mature Companies Can Outsmart Upstarts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

3. Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Richard Leifer, Albert S. Paulson, and Lois Peters, Grabbing Lightning: Building a Capability for Breakthrough Innovation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).

4. Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Ron Pierantozzi, “Create Three Distinct Career Paths for Innovators,” Harvard Business Review 14 (2009): 78–79.

5. As a result of the untimely death of one of the organization’s cofounders and leaders, this organization has since folded (