Choosing the Right Innovation Champion

Rhonda Honke Innovation


We work with a number of established organizations across different industries who recognize the need for and are willing to invest in innovation. Quickly they realize that they need to identify and build the skills and abilities of innovation champions to help run projects and support the development of an innovation culture.

In Innovation Engineering, those champions become certified as Black Belts. They know, understand, and can lead projects across an organization. Because the investment in attaining black belt certification (otherwise known as mastery) is significant, one of the common questions we get is, “How do I choose the right champion in which to invest?”.

Here are the top five things to consider when choosing an innovation champion(s) for your organization. (Note: If your organization is a start-up, reach out to me at rhondahonke@invisionedge.com as this list will look slightly different for you!).

1. Does the person think, work in, and appreciate systems?
We all live and work in systems – inter-related processes that work together to achieve a common goal. An innovation champion has to be able to ‘see’ and ask the right questions to make systems in organizations visible, even if they are informal, in order to support innovation work. He or she can see that when things are off the rails, 94% of the time it is a result of the system and only 6% of the time is it a result of employees.

2. Does the person love the science while appreciating the art?
If you are using an innovation system, like Innovation Engineering, there is a tremendous amount of structure, rigour and data to be used and followed. Individuals who make the best innovation champions recognize the value of that science and structure and will apply it. That said, there is also a need to appreciate that a system requires people to support it. As such, the champion needs to carefully balance the system and the speed at which they drive it. Go too slow and they won’t get results, but push too hard too fast and you will lose support for projects and the system.

3. Is the person emotionally intelligent?
One of the key differentiators of innovation champions is their ability to lead, communicate with, and influence others. A strong candidate for innovation champion is authentic, reads a room and individuals well, and adapts accordingly. The champion can connect with anyone at any level in an organization from entry level through the CEO – titles are not as important as the perspective one brings to the table. Because of their emotional intelligence, the best champions are able to build relationships and trust quickly across teams and organizations as a whole.

4. Is the person intrapreneurial?
Innovation champions need to be able to look outside of their personal experiences and see innovation as exciting, not scary. The best champions love to explore, connect with others inside and outside of their organization, read about what is going on outside of their industry, and bring up the ‘crazy’ ideas. In the past, organizations often sought to shut these types of folks down and have them conform to organizational norms. The best innovation champions are those that are willing to look at how we can apply learnings elsewhere in our organizations to win.

5. Is the person driven by the right motivators?
In my experience, many people express an interest in becoming an innovation champion because it is the latest buzzword or they are feeling somewhat complacent in their current roles. While those folks may add tremendous value in your organization, it is not as an innovation champion.

The right champion is not highly motivated by money, gaining personal recognition, building their resume, or positioning themselves for promotion. The right innovation champion is driven to leave a legacy, celebrate team success, build and mentor others, and achieve results for all stakeholders. These people are driven by more intrinsic than extrinsic motivators so they are willing to have tough conversations and push the important issues, even if it means taking a personal hit.

As you consider who to build up as your next innovation champion(s), consider these five things and you’ll be well on your way to choosing the best people to drive for innovation success. If you are wanting to learn more about education programs to support the development of innovation coaches, check out our Innovation Engineering certification programs here.