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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

It Takes Three to Tango


In my years as an R&D director at a global new products corporation, I had the opportunity to see many great ideas emerge from the labs. The old saw that "ideas are a dime a dozen" underrates good ideas, but a new idea certainly never guarantees that it will find it's way to the marketplace.

New ideas are very fragile. The more radical the idea, the more it lies outside whatever the company is currently doing, the more the "corporate immune system" rises up to quash the embryonic upstart. The reasons given are manifold "Its not our business." "We don't have anybody to work on it." "Its not in the budget." "We already tried that." New ideas have to run a long gauntlet to make it to commercial success.

Where I come from, there were three key roles that have to be filled to give any idea half a chance of getting over the obstacles. These roles are the Inventor, the Champion, and the Sponsor. Each is critical and each is different.

The Inventor is pretty easy to understand. It is the person with the idea. But sometimes it may not be the person who had that first Spark. Maybe that person put the idea down, but not before mentioning it to a few of his or her friends and colleagues. Someone else may have thought more of the Spark and built on it. This may actually have happened multiple times. Finally though, someone had enough passion to be willing to push the (perhaps greatly modified) idea through the development and commercialization process. This person, in my book, is the Inventor. And they are worth their weight in gold.

The Champion is someone a little higher up the food chain who usually has more insight, experience, and pull in the organization. This might be the Inventor's boss or the head of the R&D unit. But it has to be someone who has credibility with senior management. The Champion puts their neck on the line along with the Inventor to push the idea. The Champion can put some local resources into the project that the Inventor doesn't have. The Champion often is the one who builds a business case around what is largely a technical idea. In some ways, the Champion takes a bigger risk than the Inventor because pushing bad ideas can be a real career killer.

The Sponsor is someone in senior management who has far more resources at their disposal and has the ability to fend off the corporate immune system. Often the Sponsor has the ability to move the idea to someplace in the company where it can be nurtured and protected. The sponsor is high enough up to have not just R&D resources but also manufacturing and marketing resources to augment the effort. The Sponsor protects not just the idea but the Champion and the Inventor in case something out of their control goes awry.

Without the Inventor, there are only incremental product modifications. Nothing really new appears. Without the Champion, the Inventor is left unprotected and under nourished. The very thing that makes the Inventor great, a gift for new product ideas, is what keeps them away from the management chain (with all of its bureaucracy and politicking). Without the Sponsor, at least in larger companies, the incessant demand to resource today's products and business demands leaves nothing for the next generation.

In many of the examples I have written about, these roles can get muddied. Mostly, the vignettes I have presented pre-date the modern company. But even in most of these older examples most of the roles can be found if you look for them. Yesterday, I wrote about Drebbel and the submarine. His patron (translate to Sponsor) was King James I. But Drebbel also had a Champion. He worked directly for the Admiralty's armament group and there he found people who were willing to support his ideas. In fact, when one of those people died late in Drebbel's life, he lost his Champion and eventually his Sponsor as well.

The bottom line is that new ideas never make their mark on the world without a team of people playing different roles. It doesn't matter if we talk about a modern corporation or about an idea back in antiquity. No one does it alone. The myth of the "lone inventor" is just that, a myth. The more these three roles are recognized and consciously filled, the better the chances the idea has of making it into the world we live in every day. Or so it seems to me.

(Image: The Dancing Lesson, from Wikipedia)

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