Overcoming Innovation Program Anxiety: Which Came First – The Sponsor or the Challenge?

Overcoming Innovation Program Anxiety:  Which Came First – The Sponsor or the Challenge?
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Every person involved in your company’s innovation program and process is valuable, of course, but one of the most vital roles that must be strategically filled for an innovation challenge to meet with success is that of Innovation Challenge Sponsor.

The Challenge Sponsor is the person who bridges the gap between Innovation Program Manager and Innovation Challenge Manager – providing resources and ensuring that everyone working on the challenge has what they need – from funding to support staff – and that the innovation challenge is in line with the company’s mission and goals.

Securing sponsorship for challenges is often part of the Innovation Program Manager’s duties (at least tangentially) and one that requires them to harness their inner marketing/private investigating skills – because one of the surest ways to get a sponsor on board is by identifying pressing business needs you can solve on their (department’s) behalf. After all, you’ll have a greater chance of success with someone who is deeply invested in the challenge’s outcome. All you have to do is find them.

Which Came First, The Sponsor or the Challenge?

If your innovation program has been up and running for a bit, you can easily approach those who’ve shown clear interest in challenges thus far or those with an obvious problem to solve. However if your program is new, or if you aren’t sure where the biggest opportunities are for innovative growth – ask.

Sit down with executives and managers and find out what problems need solving. (This is where that private investigator bit comes in handy.) If your interview skills aren’t great, find the team member whose interviewing skills are on point and make vetting candidates their task – because you need to be able to push past the pleasantries and connect with what potential sponsors really need.

Here are some leading questions to get sponsor candidates talking:

  • What keeps you up at night?
  • What goals has your boss handed down to you to meet?
  • What would you pursue if you had more brain power/hands on your team?
  • What problem would make you look like a hero if you solved it?

You really want to go deep here – like peeling an onion. Because eventually you’re going to hit on that one thing you know you can solve together.

And here’s the marketing part: Once you know what they need fixed, you can “sell” them the solution. Or as Maxwell Wessel put it in the Harvard Business Review, “The key is understanding what matters to key stakeholders. What information is likely to get them interested in your project?” They may have zero interest in your innovation program until they find out how it can serve THEM.

What’s Good for the Goose

At the same time that you’re wooing prospective sponsors with all your innovation challenge has to offer, you’re also looking for the qualities that YOU need in order to ensure challenge success. After all, Challenge Sponsors are far from silent partners – they’re a crucial link in the innovation challenge chain. Here are three things Challenge Sponsors must offer:

Funding to implement – Perhaps the most obvious part of the equation, sponsors are there to provide the seed money that allows your innovation challenge to be developed and implemented. That’s why it’s so important to know what problems they want to solve – they may already have a budget available for sourcing solutions; at the very least they have the desire to solve the problem, which means they will find the money. Don’t be afraid to approach departments you know that have discretionary funds available and see if they have problems you can solve. There are numerous ways to find sponsor candidates.


Resources to implement – Beyond cash-flow, Innovation Challenge Sponsors are the ones responsible for providing a challenge manager – unless they choose to serve as challenge manager themselves in addition to sponsoring. The challenge manager is there to oversee all hands-on stages of the challenges – prep, moderation, and follow-up. Additionally, any other outside talent needed for the duration of the challenge would come from the Challenge Sponsor.


Decision-making power over submitted ideas – Nothing stalls innovation progress faster than red tape. Whether or not the C-Suite is directly involved in the innovation process (and they could be), you want to know there’s a dedicated person with the authority to green-light ideas coming through your innovation platform during the challenge. The Challenge Sponsor is that person.

When the challenge is complete, the sponsor should follow up with everyone who made the challenge a success, including recognizing individual and team efforts. And the innovation team should also make it a point to keep the challenge sponsor in the loop regarding ongoing analytics and ROI. Keep in mind that it’s possible this same person would sponsor additional challenges when the success of this one is clearly documented.

Once you have a few challenges under your belt, the sponsorship process will be much easier both because you’ve been through it before, and because word will spread about your innovation program, and interested sponsors will likely seek YOU out.

After all choosing between multiple great sponsors is a problem you won’t mind having. Please share your comments below. You may also find our Google Hangout Webinar with Nielsen and Thomson Reuters of interest: How to Find Challenges and Deliver Outcomes.