Wendy was an innovation consultant hired to train and guide our team. At the outset of the innovation initiative, Wendy had made the team agree to the scope of the project and the central question we were to solve. Several weeks in, we found ourselves far away from our original intent.

While the team argued technical details specific to how a certain inconsequential product feature would be delivered, Wendy attempted to steer us back on track. When the team didn’t listen, she excused herself from the table. She walked the few steps to the white board, grabbed a marker, and wrote frantically in large letters. “We all promised,” she said, “that we would stay focused on answering this question …” She pointed to the white board, then continued, “You’ve spent the last hour prioritising technical details of a solution that doesn’t address this central question at all. I fear you’re missing the mark. This question here is the reason you exist as a team. Don’t forget that.” And with that, she walked out of the room, not to return again that day. 

This episode from my past illustrates a common misstep in innovation. Teams get so lost in the romanticism of the creative process, they can forget to check themselves. Even the most adept teams can make this mistake. In our particular case, we had lost sight of our goal. Had Wendy allowed us to continue arguing points that did not matter, we would have been brought to reckoning when facing the steering committee later that week. She knew that the executives were the barrier we should be focused on.

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius famously stated, “What stands in the way becomes the way.” In the sense that innovation is the set of activities which upsets the status quo to produce new outcomes, teams should expect to face mighty obstacles on the path to innovation success – for if you find no resistance, you are in the status quo. These obstacles will for sure test a team’s effectiveness, but as Marcus Aurelius implied, it is only when facing the obstacles that a team might feel motivated to act. It is only in these moments of tension that creativity becomes a requirement rather than a best practice. An obstacle that requires no creativity to overcome is not truly an obstacle. It is the Agitator who makes the path to innovation clear by showing where the resistance will present itself. 

Eight Traits of the Agitator Archetype

The gravity of the status quo is strong. Organisations that are complacent or stuck in the status quo will not have the perspective or desire required to create truly innovative solutions. If not given a jolt from time-to-time, innovation teams will tend to revert to limiting behaviors. By shining light on tensions, errors, obstacles, inhibitors, and barriers, the Agitator challenges innovators to be true change agents, prepared to overcome the mightiest of oppositions. Let’s explore eight traits of the Agitator archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:

  1. Agitators thrive when teams are stuck. The Agitator will reframe and recontextualize problems so teams can explore new frontiers.
  2. The Agitator is inquiry-oriented. She will ask the question that will silence the room.
  3. Agitators work closely with Teammates <https://thefutureshapers.com/become-a-great-teammate-favour-team-success-over-individual-success/> to inspire teams to high-performance. Whereas the Teammate seeks harmony to advance the team towards its goals, the Agitator generates creative tension within the team.
  4. Agitators work well with Observers << https://thefutureshapers.com/how-to-fall-in-love-with-the-problem-as-an-observer >>. Together, they will seek out counterintuitive insight to scrutinize the direction a team is headed. 
  5. The Agitator will grow frustrated when teams key in on ideas which do not solve important underlying problems. 
  6. The Initiator may consider the Agitator reckless when a team is forced to change direction without notice based on provocation from the Agitator.
  7. Agitators will work with Champions to understand how to position a team for maximum traction and impact within an organisation. Recognising that innovation cuts against the grain, these two archetypes work in concert to allow teams to do so efficiently and effectively.
  8. The Agitator asks, “Why not?” She recognises the patterns, customs, traditions, and conventions that preserve the status quo. She is not afraid to challenge rules to inspire new thinking.

The Agitator’s role within an innovation team is underrated and frequently overlooked. Innovation teams will not likely be successful without someone who plays the role well, for it is the Agitator who holds a team accountable to itself. 

To Change the Results, Change the System

An Agitator will not be effective if she does not understand what is required of innovation for the organisation to meet its objectives. From there, she can determine what is required of her team for the organisation to meet its objectives. An honest, big-picture analysis of a team’s purpose compared to its capabilities will determine whether an innovation team has the potential to be successful at all. The best Agitators will not stop at this point-in-time analysis – they will project the team’s purpose and capabilities into the future to understand whether the team is built to continue to be successful. 

Agitators desire to be on high-performing teams, and will call out those not pulling their weight. They understand what got us here isn’t what is going to get us where we’re going. The Agitator’s objective should be to build an agile, responsive. To this end, the Agitator may be the first to point out team or organisational dysfunction, even if theirs is a sensitive or unpopular opinion, though she must take care not to come off too abrasively. The Agitator is not afraid to question the composition, skills, or mettle of a team to make sure it’s capable of overcoming the obstacles ahead. 

Purposeful Discomfort 

A friend of mine once said, “If there is no friction, you’re not trying to move.” Often it is left to a single person playing the Agitator role within a team to create that friction. The role of the Agitator is to create enough discomfort within a team to inspire action. After all, the team that is fat and happy will not feel the need to innovate. 

Agitators know that change is coming and that there is always more work to be done. Recognising that people rarely change when they are comfortable, the best Agitators will create the environment in which others can safely venture outside their own comfort zones. Ultimately, creativity arises when a team makes the choice not to continue to play by the rules (written and unwritten) which have led them to where they are today. A high-performance team will forget which sandbox they are supposed to be playing in. It is this movement to the edges of what’s known which inspires creativity and new thinking. By ignoring convention, creating angst, and upsetting the status quo, the Agitator helps her team become more collaborative, courageous, and adaptable.

When Wendy called out the team and stormed from the room, her actions made me uncomfortable. Wendy had seemingly broken our rules as a team to be committed and focused on the task at hand. This was the role she needed to play. The Agitator is not afraid to break (some) rules to achieve objectives. At that moment, she had to be more concerned with producing tension that would inspire action than she was with finding harmony within the team. Wendy’s agitation had grounded us and refocused us, channeling the team’s creativity so we would ultimately be successful.


Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He will profile each of his eight archetypes in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.