Want Great Innovation? Hire a Champion!

To consistently deliver new products to market, companies must embrace the best practices of innovation management. That’s hard enough to do, but it becomes even more difficult if the company’s most influential leaders aren’t riding the idea-to-product bandwagon.

The concept of the “champion” in new product development was first identified in 1963 (Schon). Since then, dozens of researchers have tried to isolate the specific leadership traits of these charismatic individuals that lead to new product development success.

No study has compared champion behaviors against other popular management approaches. Until now, that is. My CIMS colleague, Dr. Stephen Markham, has just finished a research article that details the role of the charismatic champion and how much more effective he or she can be compared with other leadership styles. Steve’s co-authors are Dr. Hyunjung Lee, a CIMS research scholar, and Tim Michaelis, a Ph.D. candidate at N.C. State. The team graciously shared the findings of their research at CIMS’ Winter Meeting in January.

I recently sat down with Steve to find out more about what went into the study, whether the results matched their expectations, and what these findings mean to the field of new product development.

Q: You talk about charismatic leaders and charisma. What does this have to do with champions?

A: Since 1977, the research has looked at the evolution of leadership from transactional to transformational. Charisma—that elusive charm or magnetism– is a quality that almost all transformational leaders have, although the jury is still out on whether transformational and charismatic leadership is the same construct. In 1990, Howell and Higgins identified champions as charismatic leaders but did test or elaborate how charismatic leaders and champions are similar or different.

As someone who transforms, a champion is by extension charismatic. Thanks to authors Conger and Kanugo, there are several commonly accepted factors associated with charismatic leadership. We used five of these to measure a leader’s charismatic effects. These are offering a vision to people, inspiring others, making meaning of actions and events, empowering others to take action and fostering a collective identity.

Q: So what correlation between charismatic leadership and new product development were you expecting to find? And what population did you study?

A: We had two hypotheses. The first is that those defined as champions would be associated with a higher level of charismatic effects than other leadership approaches to NPD. The second is that higher levels of charismatic effects would be related to the greatest levels of product performance. We used data from the 2012 Product Development Management Association CPAS study, taken from 453 member and non-member companies representing 24 different countries.

Q. How did you design the study?

A. We looked at the leadership approach we called “champion” as well as five other approaches: Professional project manager, full-time project leader, part-time project leader, self-directed project team and process owner. We used the five charismatic effect variables mentioned above and measured these against eight performance variables: New product sales, new product profits, overall success rate, success profit rate, on-time success rate, on-budget success rate, technical objectives success rate, and market objectives success rate.

Q: Were you surprised by your findings?

A: They confirmed our hypotheses. The only leadership approach that respondents rated as being associated all five charismatic-effect variables was the champion. And these charismatic effects significantly correlated with product performance. In particular, champions above all impact sales and profitability through vision and inspiration.

Q: What does this mean for companies that want to increase or maintain innovation?

A: The professional management approaches recently developed do not appear to establish vision or inspire people. So executives should be careful when switching management strategies as champions are uniquely found to help overcome organizational obstacles. Overall, I think this study opens the door and provides fertile ground for charismatic leadership theory in the context of new product development.

Written by Michelle Grainger

Are you surprised or not by what Steve, Hyunjung and Tim found? Leave a comment or ask a question!

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