young plantInnovation is quite the hot topic these days. It seems everyone wants to be innovative and for some companies it is absolutely required. Software companies that don’t constantly evolve their products will become stale. Consulting firms that don’t come up with new and better ways to do things will eventually become irrelevant. For us, we are constantly trying to evolve. In fact, the “Thought” in our company’s name reflects the priority we place on innovation. But, how do you actually execute innovation? One potential answer is to appoint an innovation “guru” that will champion the entire lifecycle of ideation through commercialization.

At first blush, this approach has appeal for a couple of reasons: 1) Innovation is hard, not many companies really do it well (especially “step function” change) and it requires discipline. 2) Discipline requires some sort of process and an owner for the process. Voila! The innovation “guru.” This person is charged with shepherding ideas through a process that may involve a business case, proof of concept, and on into the commercialization process. Ideally they are seen as a bit of an innovation expert themselves, perhaps through a great idea of their own that had a significant positive impact on the company.

While I don’t fundamentally disagree with having some sort of group or guru pushing things through, there are a couple of red flags this person should watch out for or they run the risk of being seen as just PMO “overhead”. First, they need to bring their ideas to the table – they can’t just man the in-box of other people’s ideas. Second, but related to my first point, they need to understand that they aren’t the smartest person in the building and that they don’t live in some sort of ivory tower. People like this often get “branded” and not in a good way. Third, they need to visibly lead and have support from top management. And finally, successful management of innovation comes from fostering a culture in which ideas can flourish – this person needs to be seen as a change leader and not simply a “process” person.

Innovation gurus really need to walk a fine line. They can run a skunk works type of operation away form the day-to-day business and promote an orderly process for vetting ideas, but they need to make sure they are not perceived as an unnecessary bureaucratic barrier to innovation.

So, is your innovation leader a “Guru” or just PMO overhead?