Whose responsibility is innovation anyway?

When speaking with the Sales Director of a big company recently, I was a little surprised when they said, “innovation is not my responsibility”. It felt like quite a telling remark and hinted at a bigger question about whose responsibility innovation should really be. “Not all the smart people work for you” said Bill Joy famously, founder of Sun Microsystems, so how can a company tap into great ideas or great people wherever they may be – both internally and externally – and whose responsibility is it to engage them and innovate with them? We’ve been asking ourselves these questions recently and are coming to the conclusion that the responsibility for innovation is shifting rapidly which means you have to compulsively connect, act very differently, and begin trading collaboration currencies.

Compulsively connect

Innovation seldom results from a top down strategic initiative; rather it is much more likely to spread virally from team to team, one conversation at a time. Therefore, whilst you need buy-in from the top, the worst thing you can do is lump responsibility for innovation solely in R&D or Marketing and expect them to innovate in isolation. Rather, the best innovation strategies in our experience are the ones that have buy in and engagement from right across the business, from HR, to Brand, PR, Marketing, Product Development, Mergers & Acquisitions, Customer Service and Logistics.

This is because innovation is increasingly a contact sport. External partners will not see, or be very interested in your internal structures, rather in you as a person or in the brand and what it represents. We all like to work with people (and organisations) who are straightforward and likeable and so there will be ever increasing demands for a simpler ways to engage with you. Therefore for innovation to thrive, it is crucial that everybody takes responsibility to compulsively connect people and ideas both internally and externally.

Act your way into a new way of thinking

Everybody wants innovation but nobody seems to quite agree what it is. For example we recently asked people at a client workshop (and also on twitter) to name their favorite innovations in history. The responses were impressively diverse (see below) and what strikes me when we ask this is how little consensus there is as to what innovation actually is, let alone how can we organize ourselves to deliver it? So you need to build some consensus as to what innovation actually means for your organisation and that requires a conversation that involves the whole business as well as your customers and partners.

“Act your way into a new way of thinking.” Richard Pascale

The old model of centralized R&D departments being the source of all innovation has long been replaced with Innovation departments that are generally smaller, distributed and resource-lite. This builds upon the latest trend in this brave new world is open innovation, where you innovate with partners by sharing risk and reward. However a critical error that some organisations make when embarking on open innovation is thinking that it means getting something for nothing, which is completely wrong. It is however about getting something for doing things rather differently instead, and thinking in a new way. However rather than think your way into a new way of acting, it is much faster and more effective to act your way into a new way of thinking.

Build and trade currencies of collaboration

Innovation requires leadership that inspires a movement, rather than dictates a strategy. You can no longer simply resort to the hierarchy to get stuff done and make decisions. Rather progress happens much more organically though building trust with loose coalitions of partners.  This requires a mindset and a culture that is much more collaborative (and incidentally is much more prevalent in women than men but that’s a whole other article!).

Yet most conversations about innovation tend to start with ‘what questions’ i.e. what is the problem or need that I have or that you can solve. And ‘what questions’ typically quickly result in a discussion around ownership of intellectual property. Whilst intellectual property and assets are crucial, it is access to IP that is becoming more important than ownership and it’s what you can do with them that really counts. Instead of starting with ‘what questions’ we find it is often more productive to start with ‘who questions’ i.e. who do we want to collaborate with and what motivates them? This can be more messy and complex, but ultimately more rewarding.

Intellectual property, combined with a good reputation, are increasingly becoming the collaboration currencies that drive innovation. And the best way to build up these currencies is to start trading. So start small and increase the number of conversations you are having and build your network, from which new relationships and ultimately collaborations will flow.


It was perhaps once true that innovation was not the responsibility of the Sales Director who inspired this article. Yet I would argue that today, innovation is much more networked than ever and so the responsibility for innovation in organisations must be more distributed to reflect that, which goes far beyond the organizational four walls. This includes sales people who have an absolutely vital role to play in the way an organization innovates, from tapping into insights from customers, to spotting what the competition are up to, to taking new innovations to market.

There are counter examples of course such as those companies that can hire all the smartest people (e.g. Apple) and those whose success is predicated on successfully keeping secrets (e.g. Coca-Cola). However these are the exception that prove the rule, and that most organisations can’t emulate their particular success at innovation, nor should they try.
The best innovators tend not to be necessarily the most creative or inventive; rather they are facilitators and compulsive connectors. And yet don’t expect something for nothing. Innovators must act and think very differently, by share what they are learning and build up currencies of collaboration through frequent trading of IP and building their reputation as a good collaborator. So in organising ourselves for innovation in future I hope we will no longer have to ask ‘whose responsibility is it’ as the network that we can build together is much more important than the node.

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