Five Key Characteristics Of A Commercially Viable Innovation Sponsor

Venture Capital
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While the need for innovation is widely accepted by today’s business leaders, a piece that is often missing is whether it’s commercially viable. Without that commercial piece, attempts to innovate may go no further than the idea pool.

How do you go about developing commercially viable innovation to facilitate an innovation organization? That is the focus of this five-part series on innovation. My introductory article, Is Your Innovation Strategy Commercially Viable?, defines what commercially viable innovation is, strategies for implementing it and also touches on the four elements necessary for a successful innovation organization: leadership sponsorship, resources and talent, processes for experimentation through to commercial deployment and programs for engaging internal and external ecosystems.

This second article in the series focuses on key characteristics to look for in a sponsor as you begin to build and implement your innovation organization.

Seniority Level

Begin by finding the right sponsor for your innovation organization. The higher up the sponsor is situated in a corporation, the better. Ideally, the CEO of a corporation is a champion and provides full sponsorship of the innovation organization, and the chief innovation officer reports directly to the CEO. This provides the CIO with a seat at the table with fellow C-suite executives and can help elevate the mandate and potential impact of the innovation organization. However, not all corporations are ready to make this level of commitment. The executive and leadership sponsorship may be one or several levels below the CEO, which means the mandate for an innovation organization needs to be aligned with what is realistically achievable.


Taking an innovative concept through a validation process all the way through to production deployment often requires the involvement of business units. Imagine the innovation organization is championing an interesting startup that can provide a competitive market advantage to the corporation. To substantiate its claim, several questions will need to be addressed, such as:

• How does it align with existing products or services?

• How does this innovation initiative get prioritized against other business initiatives?

• What is the potential size of the opportunity?

• What is the business model?

• How complex is this endeavor?

• What are the regulatory ramifications, risks and potential legal considerations?

• How will it integrate with existing technologies?

• What is the potential impact to revenues and/or cost reduction?

Following through on these questions requires resources and time from colleagues in the business unit. Having a sponsor that has credibility with that team and can help pave the way for alignment with the unit’s leadership can help with follow-through. The maturity level of the innovation organization as well as the level of engagement with the business units can be a deciding factor in the progress of innovation initiatives.

Decision-Making Authority And Influence

The types of decisions a sponsor can make and the level at which a sponsor can influence key stakeholders will set the stage for the mandate of an innovation organization. Align the goals for your innovation organization with what is achievable with the sponsor and fellow stakeholders. The initial set of stakeholders should be at a peer level to the sponsor and represent multiple business units and types of support. Have the sponsor help identify the right set of stakeholders to promote support of the innovation group.


Innovation can often be met with resistance. To gain traction and deliver results, it’s important to work through these barriers. Sometimes the resistance is for sound business reasons, such as when revenue projections vs. investment in the innovation project aren’t aligned. Establish milestones in partnership with a business unit to validate some of these assumptions. This may involve some intermediate steps that were not part of the original plan.

Whatever the barrier might be, an innovation group leader may need to escalate the matter to the sponsor, who can help guide next steps. There is an art and a science to this. Having a sponsor use good judgment to handle these barriers can allow for the sustainability and ongoing support of the innovation charter.

A True Champion Of Innovation

Having a sponsor who truly believes in innovation is essential. As with entrepreneurs who are starting a company, investors often spend time determining whether they believe the founders are passionate and have the right experience to run the startup before they invest. Investors know that a startup is a rollercoaster ride with extreme emotional highs and lows. Passion and resolve can help entrepreneurs ride the waves of ups and downs. Similarly, running an innovation organization in a large corporation is difficult, complex and has its own set of challenges and opportunities.

Innovation organizations often get a lot of attention from executives in a large corporation. The attention comes with excitement, support, skepticism, budget reductions and indifference — any of which can take center stage at any given time. Often, innovation groups will experience the full range of demands from a variety of executives at different intervals. Having a sponsor who is a true believer and champion will help maintain stability when the inevitable bumps in the road arise. The sponsor understands the need to adapt to changing corporate priorities, which will also help maintain the stability and momentum for sustainable and repeatable results.

In the next article of this series, we will explore the important role that the right resources and talent play when building an innovation organization.