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Three key leadership roles in an innovation project

August 4, 2016

An Innovation Engineering project involves many different people across the organization. Leadership defines the opportunity or problem that becomes the focus of the project. What may be surprising is that aside from defining that “sandbox” for the project team, the executive team is hands-off until the final business case presentation at the end of the project. It really is up to the group of employees on the project team to make things happen. So, who leads and motivates the project team to think big and stay focused during the project’s twelve-week run? There are three people who play key roles:

1. Project Leader
The Project Leader is the person responsible for running the innovation project. Originally a member of the project team, a Project Leader are chosen (or usually volunteer) because of their obvious passion and excitement for the idea that will be tested during the project. Because of this, the Project Leader is the energy source for the project. This person leads and delegates to project team members and is instrumental in testing and developing the idea.

The Project Leader has two main priorities:

  • Keeping the team focused on the mission on the project. It’s easy for the team members to get caught up in their other day to day work and lose sight of the mission; the Project Leader keeps everyone focused and on track.
  • Ensuring the idea remains meaningfully unique. If the idea isn’t meaningfully unique, it won’t be much of an innovation when it’s completed.

Importantly, the Project Leader has to know when to let go. Not all ideas work out, and that’s the beauty of the process. If the team fails fast and fails cheap, they learn what worked, what didn’t, and gets smarter in the process. Sometimes it is best to drop the idea when it isn’t working out, go back to the pile of ideas and choose another one.

2. Management Coach
The Management Coach is usually a senior leader from the organization who acts as a liaison between the executive team and the project team. For example, if the project team needs clarification on the focus of the project, the Management Coach consults with an executive and relays that information back to the team.

The Management Coach plays an important role within the team in that final decision making power on go/no-go decisions rests with them, because of their knowledge of the executive team’s intent and overall strategy. The Management Coach provides a reality check to the Project Leader if the project is going off track of the mission, brings issues to the Project Leader’s attention, and is honest and straight forward with the Project Leader throughout the project.

3. Process Coach
The Process Coach is a certified Innovation Engineering Black Belt, often the same person who facilitated the earlier stages of the process. They have advanced innovation training and tools, and experience working with the system. This person is usually an external resource, unless you have an IE Black Belt in-house. The Process Coach sees the big picture and understands the mission, the process, and the dynamics of the roles.

The Process Coach is a coach and guide for the Project Leader. They are very hands-on, helping with ideas, math models, and prototyping. They push the Project Leader to keep moving forward and not to let things stall out. They have a relentless focus on getting things done. They ask questions to keep the idea on track and meaningfully unique.

Since the Management Coach will have only a basic knowledge of the Innovation Engineering system and process, the Process Coach also spends time coaching and guiding the Management Coach to ensure the best outcomes for the project.

Innovation is never a one-person job, nor should it be. By leveraging the diversity of the project team with the passion of the Project Leader, the knowledge of the Management Coach, and the expertise of the Process Coach, innovation becomes a reality.

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