Thursday, September 8, 2016

Innovation Roles: From Souls of Fire to Devil's Advocates


This article discusses the findings of a study which aims to see if organizational members in various innovative roles differ significantly with respect to their perceptions about pros and cons of innovation and their levels of innovation-related communication. The purpose of the study is to determine how members at various positions along the chain of command within an organization impact and influence the innovative process; either positively or negatively. The author explains the traditionally accepted roles in the organizational innovative process as being that of “the idea generator”, “the idea champion”, and “the orchestrator”. The idea generator is typically a lower level member within an organization who has firsthand experience with the problem that requires innovation. This role typically requires support from employees with more authoritative power. These employees are the idea champions who greenlight innovation efforts such as implementation and experimentation by providing various forms of support. The third role is that of the orchestrator who is typically a high ranking member of the organization whose job is to navigate the innovation through the political turmoil that often results when changes take place within a workplace.

The study itself was conducted by the Cancer Information Service (CIS) to see if they could find a more efficient way to spread the word about the dangers of cancer. The previous method of informing the public was a 1-800 number citizens could call to get information. The proposed innovation was a trial run of calling women in lower income minority neighborhoods urging them to get mammograms. The survey following the trial asked various members at all stages of the implementation process and at all ranks within the organization to voice their opinion on the pros or cons of the innovation. 

The study concluded that idea generators typically have more “buy in” than other organizational members as expected. However, idea champions did not have as high a pro rating for new innovations as was expected. This was thought to be due to a number of external factors including negative perceptions of cold calling customers and low job satisfaction with phone operators. Orchestrators of the innovation did find it had more pros than cons. These findings show that those who have the power to implement organizational innovation also have the power to challenge it, if they chose to do so. 

The author acknowledges the mixed results from the expected outcome that all members who take on roles in the organizational innovation process would support it. The author then suggests the implementation of a devil’s advocate into the organizational roles for those who object to innovation for legitimate reasons. This would satisfy the criticism that past innovation role research has a managerial or pro-innovation bias. The author raises a series of questions designed to direct the devil’s advocate in any cases of organizational innovation processes. Such questions include what is the role of the devil’s advocate on the team? Who appoints the devil’s advocate to their position? How is the devil’s advocate looked upon by other members of the organization? And finally, what is the role of power in determining the effectiveness of a devil’s advocate? The author believes these core questions must be answered and examined through future studies to determine the effectiveness of a devil’s advocate before implementing them as a character role in the organizational innovation process.
This study, while it didn’t use the devil’s advocate methodology directly, shows instances where it can be useful in understanding innovation biases. For example, when the findings of the study showed that idea champions did not follow the assumed path of being proponents for innovation, a number of possible reasons for why this could have been the case were suggested. Had a devil’s advocate been incorporated it is likely they would have voiced similar concerns, thus eliminating speculation for an outcome. In general, the study itself lacks depth in attempting to identify if members of an organization at various ranks have more or less aptitude to support an innovation. It would seem apparent that those directly responsible for creating the new idea and seeing it through to completion would have more “buy in” than those who are not directly involved in the process. Similarly, it makes sense that members of various ranks would have differing opinions on the usefulness of an innovation based on how that innovation impacts them directly. An innovation that saves the company money in the long run but intensifies the workload of the lower ranking members will undoubtedly be seen differently at various levels. It shouldn’t take a devil’s advocate to come up with that line of reasoning. 

Meyer, Marcy. (2000). Innovation Roles: from Souls of Fire to Devil’s Advocates. Journal of Business Communication, October 2000; vol. 37, 4: pp. 328-347. Retrieved from on September 8, 2016.  


  1. Though the study doesn't necessarily use devil's advocate, in your conclusion, it gets at the base point "what is the role/purpose of the devil's advocate?;" and at what level in the organization should they be placed? Both questions lay out the foundation that is needed in order to gain clarity through the use of devil's advocate, and the article acknowledges this issue in regards to the Cancer Information Service's study and it's need for further clarity. Therefore I would agree with the study, and affirm the note that more research is needed on devil's advocate in order for it to be more effective.

  2. Roland,
    I agree completely. This study in particular, while it didn't directly use devil's advocate in the methodology, shows the potential value the methodology can have if used appropriately.
    Eric S.