How Charismatic Champions Boost NPD Performance
By Mike Wolff

Champions have three distinguishing characteristics, NC State management professor Stephen Markham reported in CIMS Technology Management Report No. 2, 1999: Champions adopt projects as their own, they support those projects beyond what would be expected from others in their position, and they try hard to influence other people in their organization to support their projects. However, his research also found that while “champions represent powerful forces in most companies, their energy remains largely untapped.”

Continuing his champions research, Prof. Markham finds some managements still ignoring the potential of champions while favoring other leadership approaches that are less successful for developing new products and services. Together with Hyunjung Lee, of the PDMA Research Foundation, and Timothy Michaelis, CIMS research associate, he presents those new research findings in the article below:

Successful new product development (NPD) depends on cross-functional teams with a variety of backgrounds and specialties. However, their results have been decidedly mixed, with poor project leadership the principal reason.

Current approaches to leadership include assigning professional project managers (mostly for radical innovation projects), part-time leaders and self-directed teams (1). We find, however, that these leadership approaches fail to significantly improve either market success or NPD sales and profits. Rather, as this article shows, champions with charisma can infuse their organization with vision, inspiration and the other effects listed in the diagram.









Our research shows that firms in the top quartile of these effects increase performance by 34% across the eight product performance variables in the righthand column of the diagram. That’s better than any other leadership approach companies have been adopting.Using the 2012 PDMA CPAS (Comparative Performance Assessment Study) from 453 companies in 24 different countries, our study reveals that champions create strong charismatic effects that, in turn, boost NPD performance. In contrast, results also show that professional project managers and part-time leaders have limited effects while self-directed teams have no effect at all on NPD outcomes.

In a constantly changing and turbulent NPD environment, managers seek organizations or teams that perform excellently against a known external standard, an expected potential level of performance, or other comparable management systems (3). However, this is hard to accomplish, or at least outside the box for most corporate cultures.

People’s behavior cannot be explained by monitoring performance or dispensing rewards. Leaders and followers are both inspired and inspiring. A charismatic champion who takes on the role of leader without formal authority from his or her organization will motivate people, promote new ideas, support positive behaviors throughout the innovation process, and bring them into the product development process (4). Our research provides evidence of how champions play these roles successfully and lead to greater NPD success than other popular leadership approaches.

How Charismatic Champions Impact NPD Success

Champions play the role of charismatic leader by creating charismatic leadership effects. Charismatic leadership closely matches the needs for managing organizational change and providing innovators with strategic vision.

We adopted Conger and Kanungo’s “standard” paradigm, which provides the most robust and relevant measure of charismatic leadership (5). The five components selected were: 1) offering a vision, 2) providing inspiration, 3) making actions and events meaningful, (“making meaning”), 4) empowering others to act, and 5) fostering a collective identity. (A sixth factor, high expectations, was dropped due to its similarity with transactive styles of leadership; i.e. providing contingent rewards for behaviors.)

The 2012 PDMA CPAS data confirmed that the role of the champion as charismatic leader is not reproducible with current leadership approaches. The accompanying diagram shows that champions create significantly higher levels for all charismatic effects. A champion significantly influences on vision (p=0.024), inspiration (p=0.015), making meaning (p=0.008), empowerment (p=0.002), and collective identity (p=0.009). All of the other leadership approaches have limited effects.

Furthermore, these charismatic effects of champions are strongly associated with objective NPD success metrics. Results from the study showed: 1) Higher levels of inspiration were significantly related to higher levels of all eight performance variables; 2) Vision and making meaning had direct impact on meeting market objectives and new product success; 3) Empowering people and establishing collective identity showed a strong relationship with market and on-time success.

These results offer critical insight for leading innovation because so many organizations have already adopted various leadership approaches to innovation without actually knowing their impact on performance. Charismatic champions have the unique ability to increase motivation in product developers and drive innovation efforts in mature organizations.

Advice for Top Management

The professional project managers whom many organizations have introduced in order to align projects with business goals, facilitate commitment and productivity, and minimize dysfunctional conflict do not appear to have the ability or even the intent to establish vision or inspire people. As Howell and Boies state, “champions, as informal leaders, may be in a unique position to influence other peoples’ mental models” (6). They are social architects who understand each member and the interactions; they are not managers with authority.

Nevertheless, the other roles are not without merit. These roles may complement the champion by filling in where champions are less effective, such as the more managerial aspects of product development. Mixing champions with other leadership styles may improve the performance. It seems clear that if your company is seeking to increase its NPD performance it should encourage the development and participation of charismatic champions.


  1.  Markham, S.K., and H. Lee. Product Development and Management Association’s 2012 Comparative Practices Assessment Study. Journal of Product Innovation Management 30 (3), 2013; pp. 408-429.
  2. Weber, M. The theory of social and economic organizations. A. M. Henderson and T. Parsons, trans.: T. Parsons, ed. New York: Free Press. 1947.
  3.  Vaill, P. B. The purposing of high-performing systems. Organizational Dynamics 11 (2), 1982; pp. 23-39.
  4. Markham, S. K., S. G. Green and R. Basu. Champions and antagonists: Relationships with R&D project characteristics and management. Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 8 (3&4), 1991; pp. 217-242.
  5. Conger, J. A. and R. N. Kanungo. Charismatic Leadership in Organizations. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA. 1998.
  6.  Howell, J. M. and K. Boies. Champions of technological innovation: The influence of contextual knowledge, role orientation, idea generation, and idea promotion on champion emergence. Leadership Quarterly 15 (1), 2004; pp .123-143.

Hyunjung Lee, Senior Research Fellow, PDMA Research Foundation, Raleigh NC;

Stephen K. Markham, Professor of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Poole College of Management, North Carolina State University;

Timothy Michaelis, Ph.D. student in Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Department of Psychology, North Carolina State University;

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