Champions of Technological Innovation

By Howell, Jane M.; Higgins, Christopher A. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1990 | Go to article overview

Champions of Technological Innovation


Howell, Jane M., Higgins, Christopher A., Administrative Science Quarterly


Champions of Technological Innovation The increased turbulence, complexity, and competitiveness of organizational environments have made the identification, evaluation, and adoption of technological innovations a critical determinant of organizational productivity, competition, and survival (Zaltman, Duncan, and Holbeck, 1973; Bigoness and Perreault, 1981; Morgan, 1988). As a result, a major research effort has focused on variables that facilitate or hinder the adoption of technological innovations (e.g., Rogers and Shoemaker, 1971; Kelly and Kranzberg, 1978; Kimberly and Evanisko, 1981; Pennings and Buitendam, 1987).

One variable that has been strongly linked to the success of technological innovations is the presence of a champion. This is an individual who informally emerges in an organization (Schon, 1963; Tushman and Nadler, 1986) and makes "a decisive contribution to the innovation by actively and enthusiastically promoting its progress through the critical [organizational] stages" (Achilladelis, Jervis, and Robertson, 1971: 14). Twenty-six years ago, in a seminal article on radical military innovations, Schon (1963) identified the role of a champion. He contended that in order to overcome the indifference and resistance that major technological change provokes, a champion is required to identify the idea as his or her own, to promote the idea actively and vigorously through informal networks, and to risk his or her position and prestige to ensure the innovation's success. According to Schon (1963: 84), "the new idea either finds a champion or dies."

A multitude of field and case studies have found strong support for Schon's contention that innovation success is closely linked with the presence of a champion (e.g., Roberts, 1968; Achilladelis, Jervis, and Robertson, 1971; Rothwell et al., 1974; Burgelman, 1983; Ettlie, Bridges, and O'Keefe, 1984). Yet, despite the important contribution attributed to champions in the innovation process, rigorous empirical investigation of these individuals is lacking. Prior studies examining champions are plagued by several conceptual and methodological problems, thereby casting doubt on the validity and interpretability of their findings.

Four problems with previous research on champions are evident. First, prior research has paid little attention to the systematic measurement of individual attributes of champions such as personality and leadership. Most of what is reported about champions is anecdotal, reflecting the researcher's impressions, rather than reliable and valid measurement using well-accepted instruments (e.g., Schon, 1963; Fernelius and Waldo, 1980; Delbecq and Mills, 1985; Dean, 1987). A second, related issue is that comparison groups for champions are not identified in any study. Therefore, it is unclear to what extent champions actually differ from the population of managers in general.

A third problem is that previous studies suffer from methodological flaws in the identification of champions, which makes their results questionable. To illustrate, Table 1 summarizes the methods used to identify champions in fifteen prior studies. Most authors do not even discuss how champions are identified. Other authors use individual responses, uncorroborated by others, to identify the project champion. This latter method, where single individuals are polled as to the presence or absence of champions, is problematic, since bias may be introduced due to the tendency to report oneself as the champion, a socially desirable label.

A final problem in the reliable identification of champions is the lack of specification of the various roles played by individuals in the innovation process. Several authors have identified a number of different roles associated with innovation (e.g., Roberts, 1968; Achilladelis, Jervis, and Robertson, 1971; Maidique, 1980; Curley and Gremillion, 1983; Katz and Tushman, 1983). For example, gatekeepers acquire, translate, and distribute external technological knowledge and advancements to their colleagues (Allen, 1977; Tushman and Scanlan, 1981; Katz and Tushman, 1983). …

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