To amplify your company’s presence and scale your influence, innovation teams need to harness informal networks and not simply rely on formal structures to create a thriving innovation eco-system. Enter Innovation Catalysts: natural champions who are believers, idea generators, problem solvers, mentors and sponsors in your organization.

Are you or your team responsible for the widespread adoption of innovation tools and practices? Are you expected to deliver breakthrough ideas that have significant market impact and not just incremental improvements? Are you tasked with changing the mindset of your company and creating a culture where everyone, everywhere, is responsible for innovation – everyday? Are you expected to implement an ambitious strategy with a limited budget?

To respond to these expectations, your innovation team needs a cost effective way to amplify its presence and scale its influence. A highly efficient yet simple way to achieve this is to find and bring together the believers, the idea generators, the problem solvers, and the mentors and sponsors in your organization. These natural champions make good candidates for what I call Innovation Catalysts, and when unified as a cohesive community, can form a powerful network of front-line innovation leaders who know how to make things happen. The Catalysts network offers a distributed model for achieving near term innovation objectives and sustainable gains over the long run.

Best of Both Worlds

Innovation teams need to harness informal networks and not simply rely on formal structures to create a thriving innovation eco-system inside an organization. Traditional, top-down approaches don’t fully engage employees and aren’t agile enough to cope with the ongoing change enterprises face today.

Informal networks and formal structures don’t have to work at cross-purposes. If managed well, they should support each other so the organization can benefit from the formal (e.g., control, efficiency, resources) and the informal (e.g., speed, flexibility, improvisation). Key for the innovation team is learning how to play to their strengths, along with mobilizing and influencing the informal networks to follow a coordinated innovation strategy.

The Role of Innovation Catalysts

The Innovation Catalysts Network is charged with helping to establish a critical mass of committed and capable innovators. The goal is to build bridges across the organization, to connect people and ideas in a manner that accelerates learning and implementation. The network is your best insurance policy for getting a significant return on your innovation investment.

Innovation Catalysts create positive touch points for the innovation program and when done well, establish collaborative relationships at a local level by being trustworthy, caring, and professional. They further the overall innovation strategy by playing four key roles:

  • Innovation Ambassador: Catalysts become the evangelists throughout the organization, helping people slightly behind them in the adoption curve to understand why the enterprise needs to innovate and how they can contribute.
  • Innovation Coach: They help colleagues be more innovative and successful with their projects by:
    • Providing advice on enhancing the value of ideas (CO-STAR method)
    • Ensuring attention is given to customer needs
    • Directing idea champions to helpful resources
    • Coaching to build confidence and skills (prototyping, pitching, etc.)
  • Innovation Facilitator: Catalysts can help design, develop, and deliver critical innovation events. For example, they can facilitate Rapid Idea Improvement Sessions, lead innovation challenge planning sessions, provide innovation updates at regional meetings, support hackathons, and participate on innovation juries.
  • Change Agent: They help idea champions to navigate the politics, avoid pitfalls, and work through the maze of the organization. The network also acts as an early warning system to the core innovation team to alert them to systemic issues or specific problems that are hindering innovation efforts.

Catalysts can be a friendly source of inspiration when innovators feel frustrated and stalled. Just a few words of encouragement or suggesting that innovators contact the innovation team can be uplifting and get the project back on track. However, there are also risks: Catalysts need to watch out for getting pulled into non-productive activities. Certain idea champions can be quite persuasive in their continual need for assistance. Catalysts should avoid:

  1. The Technical Expert Role: Watch out for evaluating the ideas of others
  2. The Pair-of-Hands Role: Watch out for getting sucked into doing the work for them

Building the Innovation Network

Catalysts can come from all parts of the organization, and from different roles, functions, and regions. They must share an enthusiasm for innovation and a willingness to help others succeed. It also helps if they have organizational credibility, are business savvy, and possess good people skills. The rest can be taught.

Let me provide a concrete example from a recent Fortune 100 client with world-wide operations. We began with an Innovation Blueprint session to align the leadership team around the opportunities and market threats to their business, created a common vision of the future, and gained commitment on their roles and plan for moving forward. The plan required the five member innovation team radically scale up their efforts. Each person was assigned a region and together we went on a 2-month world tour building the Innovation Catalysts Network. We conducted Innovation Boot Camps in each region where 50 potential Catalysts were trained in our Discipline of Innovation methodology.

The Innovation Boot Camps provided a forum to:

  • Establish mastery of core innovation tools and practices
  • Teach tips and techniques for facilitating groups and coaching individuals
  • Enhance teamwork and collaboration (create support network among participants while building relationships with core innovation team)
  • Clarify roles and establish plans for going forward

By the third month we had trained 250 Innovation Catalysts who in turn were ready and able to spread the discipline of innovation they had learned. Sharing common language, concepts, and practices across the globe helped employees uncover unmet needs, identify significant opportunities, and champion bold new ideas quickly and collaboratively. The impact of the network combined with a powerful idea management system has been remarkable. Not only did the early ideas from the various innovation challenges provide quick wins, but you could feel the corporate culture starting to shift. Employees who had never thought of themselves as innovators, or people who had never been asked to offer ideas, were stepping up and participating.

In general, innovation teams can find Catalysts in a variety of ways. Some Catalysts are nominated internally by their units, while others are recruited during innovation events where employees with the desired personality and skills are identified. If developed effectively, Catalysts not only recruit innovators, but help bring sponsors, experts, and mentors into the innovation program. Often, a natural second wave takes place as the initial Catalysts group taps into their own personal networks and suggest names for future members.

Sustaining the Innovation Network

Having built the network, the innovation team has an obligation to monitor and nurture the community. This is especially true because the membership is entirely voluntary. If the network is not compelling enough, then it will lose out to the Catalyst’s day job and no time will be set aside for innovation activities. Tips for sustaining the network include:

  • Take every opportunity to bring people together in the same physical location. (e.g., whenever anyone from the innovation team visits a different region, gather the Catalysts together for a meeting or a training workshop).
  • Ensure the Catalysts are actively involved with the company’s idea management platform so they can feed off the energy of the innovators, collaborate with colleagues, and support projects in their area (e.g., IdeaScale’s enterprise platform)
  • Recognize the network as often as possible (e.g., communicate names and contributions in an annual innovation management report).
  • Reinforce their status and identity (e.g., provide certificates and create alternate business cards just for the Catalysts).
  • The innovation team should look for ways to help their Catalysts develop personally and professionally (e.g., attending talks, or supporting hackathons).
  • Keep the network and their accomplishments in the spotlight (e.g., joining the executives at “demo day”).

It’s important that Catalysts see themselves, and are seen by others as valuable resources and proactive facilitators of the enterprise’s innovation strategy. This ensures your Catalysts remain enthusiastic and also helps gain commitment from the organization to continue to support the network.

“No matter how smart your people are, most of the smartest people in the world are outside your company.” ~Bill Joy, CTO Sun Microsystems

Extending the Boundaries of Your Network

Of course you can expand the network to include people outside your enterprise. This open innovation approach, which can include universities, startups, incubators, outposts, etc. has become a corner stone tactic of most pioneering companies. And why not? Adding inspiration and expertise of others can really only be beneficial. Consider this quote by Bill Joy:

“No matter how smart your people are, most of the smartest people in the world are outside your company.” ~Bill Joy, CTO Sun Microsystems

One way to help your people think outside the box, is to collaborate with people from outside your organization. While I am keen to share my thoughts on this important topic, I believe it deserves an article all to itself.

If you want to discuss Innovation Catalysts and how to build and effective network, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

By Laszlo Gyorffy

About the author

Laszlo Gyorffy, M.S. is President of the Enterprise Development Group. For over 20 years, Laszlo has worked with organizations around the globe to expand the possible; helping them refocus, redesign, and reenergize their business strategies and innovation practices to succeed in an increasingly dynamic and demanding market place. Laszlo is an accomplished speaker and author of Creating Value with CO-STAR: An Innovation Tool for Perfecting and Pitching your Brilliant Idea as well an opening chapter on innovation leadership in the textbook The Global Innovation Science Handbook. He is a certified instructional designer and trainer and has delivered transformational programs like the Innovation Advantage and the Secrets of Silicon Valley. Laszlo recently developed the One Hour Innovator, a cloud-based toolkit that helps people innovate better, faster, and smarter. The methods used in these trainings and tools have created business solutions worth millions of dollars in new revenue and cost efficiencies. You can reach Laszlo at