Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Every idea needs a sponsor

As I noted yesterday, I'm writing a series of posts about what I've learned over the last 15 years of corporate innovation work.  Yesterday I wrote about needing a "why and a how" rather than a "what" for innovation.  Today, I'd like to write about sponsorship, and why it is critical to have engaged sponsors for ideas and for innovation.

This idea is important enough that I took the extra 30 seconds and looked up the definition of sponsor.  The definition that I felt was appropriate for this discourse was "one who assumes responsibility for some other person or thing".  I think this is as close as we can get to what an innovation or idea sponsor is.  Now we just need to understand how this fits into innovation, and why I think it is so important.

Free radicals

Most ideas are free radicals - that is, they don't necessarily "belong" to anyone, and if they are interesting or have real potential impact they are probably a bit dangerous or radical.  Since it is easy to generate lots of ideas, every business has plenty of incremental and disruptive ideas floating around.  It's not hard to generate ideas, obviously, but much more difficult to decide which ideas to test and validate, and even more difficult to convert an idea into a new product or service.  To test and convert ideas successfully and consistently, you'll need to match an idea to a sponsor.  Otherwise, ideas will remain free and interesting, but they won't be implemented.

I've used the term "free radicals" intentionally.  Ideas themselves are necessarily dangerous the way free radicals in our bodies are dangerous, yet ideas left unaccounted for tend to hang around and become the subject of discussion and debate, leading to skepticism and cynicism about innovation.  So over time ideas without sponsors can become like a free radical in the human body, doing unintended damage.


An idea sponsor is simply an individual with enough seniority to ensure that an idea receives the attention, funding and resources it needs to be carefully considered and promoted to a stage where it has a chance to enter new product or service development.  Idea sponsors typically don't sponsor ideas out of the goodness of their hearts - this isn't a charitable exercise - but for purposes of advancing a new opportunity that has value to them or to their business.

This means that ideas need to be matched with people who have enough power or clout to move them ahead, and also matched with people who have an opportunity or need that the idea addresses.  No matter how good an idea is, if there isn't a person who has the need or understands the opportunity and is willing to invest in the idea and push it forward, it will remain a free radical.

There's a potential downside to sponsorship, which we must also consider.  Sometimes "pet" ideas or concepts that aren't really interesting or innovative have sponsors.  Projects or ideas that could not receive investment or funding under other mechanisms will be relabeled as "innovative" and pushed through an innovation process.  That's why every good innovation process has a gating function or steering committee to determine if the idea has real value and impact, as well as having a sponsor.

What do sponsors do for ideas?

Ideas may be free, but managing, evaluating, testing and validating ideas isn't free.  These activities require investment of time and money, and that's where sponsors come in handy.  Given that many organizations have lots of ideas and few resources, resource allocation and prioritization is in order.  For ideas to succeed - moving from the "front end" to product or service development and on to launch, a lot of investment, focus and pressure must be applied.  That only happens when someone takes an interest in an idea and helps focus attention and resources on the idea.

Sponsors help build a business case for the idea, provide resources to shape and vet the idea, encourage the innovation teams when obstacles occur and make the case for the idea to bridge the gap from a concept in the front end to a defined project in product or service development processes.  Sponsors keep attention on an idea, ensure funding flows to critical ideas even when other projects are getting sidelined or killed.

What happens without sponsorship?

When we make a case for a specific course of action - such as assigning sponsorship to ideas - we ought to demonstrate that the course of action has merit over a 'do nothing' or status quo activity.  So let's imagine what happens to ideas in a front end funnel without any sponsorship.

Teams or individuals will generate ideas, and will seek funds to test and validate ideas.  They will have to ascertain what ideas are most valuable and important based on corporate or business unit strategy, since no one will forcefully argue for an idea.  They will have to prioritize a handful of ideas - because they can't work on more than a few at a time - based on their own judgement, since no one is placing emphasis on a specific idea.  The team will have to negotiate for funds to prototype, test or license ideas or conduct research from a funding source who isn't necessarily keen on any specific idea or course of action.  All this time ideas are free radicals, not aligned to any product group or business function, and therefore not receiving any input or shaping by a potential adoptee.

Any idea that must go through a front end process, that must bridge the gap from the front end to product or service development, that must go through a marketing and launch cycle and have an impact on its market needs a sponsor, ideally the same one throughout.  We can debate whether or not small, incremental ideas need sponsorship, but anything reasonably new of different simply cannot run this gauntlet without the careful attention of someone with enough need, vision and clout to make it happen.

How does your organization decide who sponsors ideas?  How do you avoid the pet idea practice?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:14 AM


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