Innovation Roles – The Jester

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation Roles - The JesterOver the last few days I’ve been writing about the different roles, or “hats”, that innovators must play. I’ve talked about the role of the Matador, anticipating the bulls who protect sacred cows. I’ve written about the need for the Futurist, to encourage people to think longer term. I wrote yesterday about the Tinkerer, who must convert virtual ideas into tangible artifacts for prospects and consumer to understand. Today I want to talk about another role, and I’ve struggled with the title. Basically it came down to either “the jester” or “the therapist” and I went with “the jester” because I thought it sounded more interesting.

Today’s role is probably the most important and the most difficult to perform well. Innovation, as you know by now, is in high demand from the executive suite. Innovation, conversely, is very difficult to implement in the bowels of most organizations, regardless of the demands of the executive suite, because there’s a gap in understanding, commitment and resources between what’s asked for and what’s funded. Asking for innovation without providing funding and resources is worse than useless – it’s cynical.

So here’s where the role of the Jester comes in. As an innovator, you must often help executives and managers understand the implications of what they request. Jesters in ancient courts were the people who could question the kings pronunciations without the risk that other courtiers faced. They could tell the king that he wore no clothes. Often, in many firms considering innovation efforts, the innovation lead must tell the executive team that their pronouncements wear no clothes – merely asking for innovation without changing the compensation and evaluation schemes, or asking for innovation without resourcing the effort, or asking for innovation without increasing a tolerance for risk, these reflect either a lack of understanding about the undertaking or a cynical, short term ploy to play to what the street wants to hear. Let’s assume that most of the communication in genuine – executives actually want innovation. Then, it’s the role of the innovation lead to demonstrate the implications of that expectation. In other words, the innovator needs to “speak truth to power” and demonstrate the commitments, investments and risk tolerances necessary for innovation to succeed.

Now, with just a little bit of thought much of this should be obvious, which is why this role is really an amalgam between a jester and a therapist. One could argue that the executives know that more resources, more investment and more commitment are vital for the success of innovation, but they are in “denial”. They want the benefits but don’t want to commit the necessary resources. What happens then is that a Potemkin village is erected. As you know, the old saying from the Communist era still applies – you pretend to pay us and we’ll pretend to work. The modern equivalent is: you pretend to fund innovation, and we’ll pretend to innovate. There are a significant number of firms talking about innovation today, which are really Potemkin villages of innovation – there for the compliant media to applaud, but not creating anything of value.

As an innovator in most firms, it will inevitably be the case that you will have to confront high expectations with limited resources. You can take the “jester” approach and demonstrate the actual requirements for innovation to succeed, or you can take the “therapist” approach and help the executives through their denial, but either way you’ll have to achieve more commitment, resources and investment than the executives establish initially. You can choose to create a Potemkin village, recognizing that little of value will be created through your innovation efforts and more people will become frustrated with the limited efforts or you can choose to demand the resources, funding and commitment necessary to achieve what the executives expect. Understand the real underlying goals and work accordingly.

If you missed the other roles, here are links to them for your convenience:

Next time: The Bulldozer

Editor’s Note: For a look at some team-based innovation roles, check out The Nine Innovation Roles

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and