To champion something is to support it, to defend it. We champion the cause of liberty. Ladybird Johnson, wife of the American president who succeeded John F. Kennedy, championed the cause of wild flowers.
The word was given a management twist in the late 20th century when many companies came to believe that each new project, in order to gain success, needed a champion, a specific individual within the organisation who would defend it and nurture it through its early days. Without such a person, it was suggested, new projects would wither from lack of devotion.
Edward Schon of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) wrote:
The new idea either finds a champion or dies… No ordinary involvement with a new idea provides the energy required to cope with the indifference and resistance that major technological change provokes… Champions of new inventions display persistence and courage of heroic quality.
Championing is often applied to people as well: bright, young, talented people within an organisation are deemed to need a champion, someone higher up the corporate ladder who will support them and fight their corner. Many chief executives have risen to the top largely because they have been nurtured through their careers by people in high places.
In their book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman say that successfully innovative companies revolve around “fired – up champions”. 3м, the American inventor of the Post-It note, told them: “We expect our champions to be irrational.”
Champions are not easy people to work and live with. James Brian Quinn spells out a paradox associated with the type:
The champion is obnoxious, impatient, egotistic, and perhaps a bit irrational in organisational terms. As a consequence, he is not hired. If hired, he is not promoted or rewarded. He is regarded as not a serious person, as embarrassing or disruptive.
Peters and Waterman
maintain that companies need to set up special systems to support and encourage these disruptive people if they are to benefit from their stubborn persistence with new ideas (which need not necessarily be their own).
Championing is held to be particularly important in the process of innovation, of bringing an invention to market. History is spattered with innovations that would never have been successful in the marketplace if they had not been stubbornly supported by one (often rather cranky) individual.
A widely reported case was that of Spence Silver, an employee of 3м, who became unnaturally fond of a glue that was not very good at gluing. “I was just absolutely convinced that it had some potential,” Silver is reported as saying. But for many years he was unable to persuade anybody else within the organisation to agree with him. He persisted, however, in championing his pet product. As he himself put it:
You have to be a zealot at times in order to keep interest alive, because it will die off. It seems like the pattern always goes like this. In the fat times, these groups appear and do a lot of interesting research. And then the lean times come just about at the point when you’ve developed your first goody, your gizmo.
And then you’ve got to go out and try to sell it. Well, everybody in the division is so busy that they don’t want to touch it. They don’t have time to look at new product ideas with no end-product already in mind.
Spence Silver’s persistence with his “glue that doesn’t glue” eventually led to the invention of the Post-It note. The rest, as they say, is history.