In order for innovation to flourish in your organization, your innovation champions must be supported through properly structured responsibilities, goals and resources. Otherwise, they will leave to pursue other opportunities, taking their energy and ideas with them. That’s one of the core messages of Gerard J. Tellis’ new book, Unrelenting Innovation.

Business history is full of examples of exceptionally talented visionaries who left large corporations to found their own and enjoyed extraordinary success: From Nikola Tesla leaving Edison to develop alternating current (AC) with George Westinghouse to John Warnock leaving Xerox PARC to start Adobe, history shows us that brilliant people must be cultivated, or they will take their innovations elsewhere, often founding start-up companies to bring their extraordinary visions to life.

While business anecdotes often describe innovators as “being in the right place at the right time” to make their ideas successful, Tellis’ research dismisses this popular theory. “Without knowledge of the details of the events and the characteristics of champions, these events appear as lucky breaks,” he explains. “But on close scrutiny, it’s the characteristics of champions that enable them to identify and create these lucky breaks.”

Tellis’ research of innovation stories, which covered over 100 years of inventions and 66 markets created by innovators, uncovered four characteristics they share:

Champions have a vision for the future mass market. Innovation champions are able to see subtle signs about the direction in which the market is evolving and identify its unmet needs ahead of the competition. They have a unique worldview and they are not content to follow the groupthink of their industry or profession.

Champions are mavericks and dissenters. Their vision is unique, and they are stubbornly committed to it, despite what other executives and experts may say. Such resistance and ridicule is a major reason why innovation champions often leave their organizations to develop their idea on their own or within an organization that will give them the responsibilities and resources they need to bring it to life.

Innovation champions have the conviction to persist against heavy odds. New ideas face many obstacles in today’s organizations, including a non-existent market for the idea, resistance from entrenched interests, an inability to demonstrate their idea’s future potential and setbacks in production, manufacturing or testing of new product concepts. “Champions have the motivation and passion to overcome these obstacles and persist with the vision they believe holds the promise of success,” Tellis explains. In other words, if the champion can’t bring their vision to life within your organization, they will find another way. They will not be denied.

Champions are willing to take extraordinary risks to bring their idea to fruition, and are able to instill this trait in their teams. Tellis cites Fred Smith of FedEx, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook as examples of champions who were able to withstand tremendous pressure to stay the course, often over many years, to transform their compelling visions into reality.

How can companies support innovation champions? One way is to make a deliberate effort to cultivate them across the organization, by identifying and mentoring them early in their careers. Google’s Associate Product Manager program is a case in point. The technology giant has realized that to stay ahead of its competition, it must not only attract the best talent and train them to be relentlessly innovative, it must also create a culture that empowers people and makes them resistant to poaching by other companies and to encourage them to develop their ideas within Google, rather than leaving to form a start-up.

The APM program picks the best and the brightest talent, often right out of college, and allows them to head key projects within the company. Each young turk gets a buddy, a mentor and a management coach to help them shoulder their huge responsibilities. The program is very attractive to top talent, who is often restless and wants to make a big impact on the world.

…the same restlessness that makes these young turks such extraordinary innovators is the same characteristic that may carry them elsewhere.

What makes Google’s approach unique, according to Tellis, is that its champions are distributed throughout the company, and are cultivated with a formalized program. This flies in the face of which says that one “super champion” is at the head of the company and single-handedly develops the vision for the company’s future direction (the late Steve Jobs comes to mind).

Even though many APM graduates still leave the company eventually, Google executives believe it’s a valuable investment, because it gets the best ideas and innovations from them during their tenure at the technology giant. In other words, the same restlessness that makes these young turks such extraordinary innovators is the same characteristic that may carry them elsewhere. Tellis quotes former Google vice-president Marissa Meyer as estimating that only 20% of APM’ers stay with the company. But in the process, Google has cultivated positive relationships that may enable it to buy the start-up firm back some day, after it has commercialized its Big Idea. That still counts as a win in Google’s playbook.

By Chuck Frey

About the author

Chuck FreyChuck FreySenior Editor, founded and served as its publisher from its launch in 2002 until the partnership with Innovation Management in 2012. He is the publisher of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the definitive souce for news, trends, tips and best practices for visual mapping tools. A journalist by trade, Chuck has over 14 years of experience in online marketing, and over 10 years experience in business-to-business public relations. His interests include creative problem solving, visual thinking, photography, business strategy and technology. His unique combination of experience and influences enables him to envision new possibilities and opportunities.