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Thursday, September 17, 2020

C-Suite Advisory

4 Steps to Build Teams That Champion Innovation at Your Company

Many companies tout strategic innovation initiatives on their annual reports, yet how many are making real headway? True innovation takes time, and it’s often not a linear process. To succeed, you need champion teams that form innovative solutions.

What Are Champion Teams?

Champion teams are designated by leadership to drive innovative processes. These teams can be tasked with finding innovative solutions, new products, technological adoptions, or even different ways to connect with stakeholders.

Strong teams consist of three to five people with different roles in the company — they’re typically volunteers who take on the project in addition to their normal work. Diversity of thought is vital to the team’s success, so it’s best to have people from various departments, management levels, and skill sets. The most important factor is that each team member cares about the problem or solution.

For an example of a successful champion team, let’s look at Ameren’s Accelerator program. Ameren’s main goal is to help startups with innovative ideas, technology, or solutions. When it finds a startup to assist, the accelerator builds a champion team of four to five Ameren employees. The team meets with the startup once a week to advise, teach, make connections, and explore possible pilots or trials. Most importantly, the champion team establishes relationships that will last well beyond the program.

Ameren provides the startup with expertise, knowledge, and connections. In turn, the startup provides Ameren with new energy, ideas, and relationships. And the champion team? It’s able to view solutions through an entrepreneurial lens and learn something new to bring to the company.

Setting Up Successful Champion Teams

If you want sustainable innovation, then implement champion teams now. They provide the best support for long-term innovative solutions. They also re-energize the company, foster increased engagement, and encourage collaboration. Here are four ways to integrate champion teams in your company:

  1. Get buy-in from leadership.
    Innovation initiatives need support from the CEO and leadership team to succeed. Innovation efforts are often complex, requiring dedicated resources that only higher-ups can allocate. They also demand long-term effort, so it’s best to have the big-picture perspective that leadership provides.
    The people on the team are taking a risk by joining. It will take time away from their day-to-day duties, and it’s likely that some of the ideas will fail. They need to know that leadership will support their efforts no matter what.
  2. Create a culture of innovation.
    Culture starts at the top, so the CEO must visibly encourage and support innovation for it to become the norm. Implement a drive toward innovation enthusiastically over time. Remember, it might be slow to get off the ground.
    At Ameren, for instance, it took time for the company to recognize that the teams were making a notable impact. By the second or third year, more employees wanted to join and support the effort. This was partly because the marketing and PR departments publicly celebrated the teams’ wins to garner large-scale attention. If leaders back the efforts from the top, the rest of the company will follow.
  3. Select the best team members.
    Fill your champion teams with people who take chances and have leadership and motivational skills. Technical expertise is not as important as attitude. Find folks who are not afraid to try new things and seek unique solutions — target thoughtful risk-takers who don’t fear failure.
    As mentioned, diversity of thought is integral to creative problem-solving. The most effective champion teams are filled with people from various backgrounds. An engineer will approach a problem differently than a customer service representative, yet both perspectives are necessary to overcome the barriers faced by your customers.
  4. Set specific objectives.
    Champion teams don’t have to be evergreen to be successful. It’s more helpful to give your team a specific objective and set time frame. Without those clear guidelines, teams can become frustrated, lost, or burned out. If your champion team loses energy, it will no longer perform as designed.
    Give your team the best chance of success by assigning smaller objectives in the beginning and setting realistic deadlines. Perhaps you can have the team build a small trial or pilot around a noteworthy innovation that’s already in the works.

If you want your company to take innovation seriously, look to internal champion teams. Fill the teams with a diverse group of natural leaders, and celebrate every victory. When you champion your champions, you’ll see innovative success.


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Dan Lauer
Dan Lauer is the founding executive director of UMSL Accelerate, an initiative that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship in and outside the classroom and helps bring concepts from mind to market. Dan Lauer is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.