Distributed innovation departments

I suspect that often, the logic sequence of an organisation looks something like this:

We need to be innovative > we need people who are focused on innovating > we need to create an innovation department for these people

I don’t think this is wrong or bad, I just think it’s incomplete.

Rather than worry about whether to have a distinct innovation department or not, what I think is more important is that the organisation acts with the mentality of having a distributed innovation department i.e. the responsibility to innovate is delegated to each and every person in the organisation. If an organisation wants to be truly innovative, rather than just restrict itself to producing innovative products and services, innovative people and activities must exist throughout. This way of working not only puts the responsibility of innovating on people who are in the best place i.e people ‘on the front line’, but also helps to open up the spectrum of innovation and helps more stuff actually get realised.


Following on from this, I would suggest that an innovation department is indeed a very good idea, if one of the principle objectives of the department is to nurture a culture throughout the organisation that actively encourages innovative activities and behaviour.

So, perhaps the logic sequence should look more like this:

We need to be innovative > we need people to innovate > we need to create an environment that allows people to innovate > we need an innovation department to champion this cause


  1. Innovation Departments are – in this respect – a little like Sales Departments, if there is one then everyone else is off the hook. In an ideal world Innovation would be spread throughout the enterprise and therefore there is no need. In practice I think most companies are a long way form that and therefore I would agree that they are needed. Just make them resources not fortresses…. although fortresses are sometimes required in other parts of the innovation process….. rules? What rules?

  2. Thanks for your comments Richard. I really like the way you liken innovation departments to sales departments, and the idea of everyone else being ‘off the hook’ if there is one.
    Also, I think you’re also right that most companies are way off having distributed innovation departments… but it’s good to aim high!

  3. Sounds like a great approach Vincent. I’m sure that trying to embed innovation practices into every individual in an organisation is very difficult without the presence of an innovation department, central innovation task force or other group that can champion the cause.

  4. Innovation metrics need to be part of everyone’s job desc and evaluation if they are involved in innovation (and who isn’t). An innovation dept can’t innovate without the front lines and the front lines won’t innovate unless they are measured on it. Both central dept and front lines need to share responsibility but appreciating the partnership and discrete roles.

  5. An Innovation Department as a resource – yes! And also as a connector across the organisation, drawing people in and responsible for holding open a space for exchange and emergence.
    Jose Fonseca likens innovation to a dissipative structure. Like a whirlpool, this is a structure created by the dynamic exchange of energy and matter, or perhaps in an organisational context, created through the exchange of people and ideas.
    Not what I immediately envisage when I think of the word ‘department’, I grant you. But maybe that’s part of the problem.

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