The first time I moderated a customer focus group I was terrified. I truly believed that focus group facilitation required some sort of professional certification. They wouldn’t allow just anyone behind that one-way glass, would they?
As it turns out, yes, they would! Given my choice, I wouldn’t have stepped through that door, sat down at a table full of strangers, and hosted a conversation about their financial stresses; but it was my turn. Others had gone before me and shown me it could be done. A senior leader who had conducted the group before mine assured me I would be fine, “We’re here for you, right behind that window, and remember, this is the 100-dollar solution.”
I didn’t fully appreciate what he’d meant until many years later, when, as V.P. of Growth Initiatives, I was tasked with innovating on a shoestring budget. We were on track to blow through the research budget by mid-year. Steven, a direct report in charge of our research function, was in my office reviewing vendor bids for research that we couldn’t afford. “Let’s find a different way,” I said to Steven. “What’s the 100-dollar solution here?” We sat together and mapped out a process for doing the research in-house, at a fraction of the cost of the vendor solutions. Though it was the best solution, Steven seemed nervous about taking on the new responsibility of executing in-house research. “It’s okay if there’s a learning curve here,” I assured him. “I’ve got your back, and we’ll have higher odds of innovation success when we gain this skill.”
Oscar Wilde once said, “Success is a science. If you have the conditions, you get the result.” In corporate innovation, success is not guaranteed. The entrenched structures, policies, norms, and beliefs of an organisation can make innovation success near impossible to achieve. To create the conditions for successful innovation, someone must play the role of the Architect, designing the environment in which innovators can thrive.
Eight Traits of the Architect Archetype
A great innovation Architect is a future-oriented strategist who understands the status quo, and prepares teams and the environments in which they are expected to innovate. Let’s explore eight traits of the Architect archetype to better understand where in innovation their participation is most critical:
- While teammates are working on the path to one destination, the Architect is designing the ecosystem that will get the team to the next one.
- Architects are inquiry-oriented. They seek insight from multiple sources to anticipate challenges and capitalise upon emergent trends.
- Architects work closely with Champions to survey and respond to the environment in which innovation is required. While the Champion will position themselves out in front—learning from others while promoting and selling change, the Architect may be found behind closed doors—scrutinizing the organisation’s readiness and drafting a new approach to innovation.
- Architects work well with Teammates. When an Architect issues a challenge to a team to work differently, the Teammate will help coach the team members to success.
- Without strong communication, the Architect may become frustrated by those who play the Agitator role, as the Agitator may (rightfully) challenge and redirect a team after the Architect has moved on to designing for what’s ahead.
- It is important that the Architect recognises and reassures the Observer, who may feel threatened by an Architect that values extroversion and change agency.
- Architects will work with Experts to understand emergent trends, and assess a team’s potential for solving complex problems.
- The Architect understands that innovation is challenging and that teams need time and room to explore; she will strive to create space for collaboration and creativity.
In summary, it is the Architect’s role to build high-performance teams that feel comfortable taking risks to innovate; the Architect must reduce the risk of taking risks.
With Good Design Comes High Performance
The Architect may spend a great deal of energy setting others up for success. They understand that by creating an environment where innovators can thrive, the innovation potential of the team and organisation can increase. They understand obstacles to progress—such as organisational silos—and make efforts to overcome the obstacles—such as reaching across the tops of the silos to improve communications.
Architects understand business problems well, and they seek to design teams that can solve complex problems. The best Architects not only develop a broad contextual awareness of what is required to achieve innovative outcomes, they also communicate that context to others who may not have access to the same information they have. Architects readily form new work relationships, and they work to make connections among team members so teams can be successful.
The Architect is often in a management position within an organisation, though positional authority is not a requirement to play the part. Anyone can seek to understand the environmental context that an innovation team may find itself in. A lower-level employee who learns how to play the Architect role well may find they are rewarded through recognition or promotion ahead of someone who does not play this role well. In fact, many managers are not strong Architects. The innovation Architect will prioritise producing desired outcomes over adherence to established and entrenched norms, which often requires challenging convention and cutting against the grain.
Drawing New Lines
What differentiates the innovation Architect from other results-oriented roles is that they need to be brutally honest about what an organisation’s innovation potential is. If the competencies (e.g. expertise, processes, or mindset) or resources (e.g. budget, talent, or bandwidth) required to produce the innovation the organszation needs are not there, it is the Architect who must design the approach for gaining those competencies and resources. The Architect will prioritise the innovation outcomes over the development of the team members if the organisation requires them to do so. This may look like seeking external consultant support, removing or adding team members, or even burning bridges to gain an edge. If the competency and resources are there as unrealised potential, it is the Architect’s role to create the conditions required for success. This can take a number of forms, including: enlisting allies who will support the innovation efforts, leveraging subject matter experts in new ways, getting teams out of their comfort zones, building new physical spaces, implementing new processes, securing additional funding, or finding other creative ways to overcome obstacles.
Leadership, introspection, preparation, creativity, experimentation, and agility are all elements of the Architect’s role. In my personal example above, by asking a question that challenged convention (“What’s the 100-dollar solution here?”), working with Steven the research expert on a solution, and supporting him through the transition, better conditions for long-term success were created. With the savings we generated in-sourcing our research activities we were able to hire a second researcher who also wrote her own surveys, and created her own videos, all at a fraction of the cost of a third party. The potential of the organisation had improved through a few simple strokes of an Architect’s pen.