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What motivates ‘innovation champions’?

21 June 2023



Governments are increasingly turning to the not-for-profit sector to provide public goods and services. An article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration examines the motivations of ‘innovation champions’ – the key agents driving innovation – in the challenging not-for-profit context. The research found innovation champions are not motivated in any one single way. Motivations include intrinsic and extrinsic drivers, spanning self-interest and contributing to a ‘greater good’. The findings have wider implications for public service-oriented organisations wanting to encourage innovation.  

Innovation in public service-oriented organisations

The article defines innovation as a process through which new ideas and practices are created, developed, or reinvented, and which are new for the unit of adoption. In not-for- public sector settings, innovation is underpinned by an intention to drive positive changes within the community. 

In not-for-profit organisations, innovation can involve: 

  • new program offerings that improve social outcomes for clients 
  • new approaches to funding in response to increasingly competitive funding models 
  • more efficient internal processes to enhance service delivery 
  • new approaches for addressing social issues. 

Who are innovation champions?

Innovation champions are individuals who: 

  • are passionate in their beliefs about an idea 
  • go above and beyond their role descriptions 
  • persevere through organisational resistance 
  • generate enthusiasm in others 
  • are highly knowledgeable, flexible, driven, and politically astute. 

Champions contribute positively to specific innovation projects and can engender broader innovation outcomes at team and organisational levels. Achieving successful outcomes, while generally positive for organisations, does carry risk for individuals.  

This can occur through competing with organisational power structures, potentially generating stress for the champion and even adversely impacting career advancement and personal reputation. This begs the question of what motivates champions to act in ways that can be personally risky. 

Applying self-determination theory to innovation champions

Self-determination theory (SDT) provides a framework for examining motivation. It outlines the differences between motivation to engage in a task purely out of enjoyment of the process (intrinsic motivation) and motivation to engage in a task for reasons other than inherent interest.  

SDT identifies five types of motivation along a continuum representing the extent to which a behaviour is driven by a motivation that is internally or externally founded.  

  • Intrinsic motivation is the most autonomous type of motivation and refers to behaviour regulated by enjoyment and/or interest in the task rather than the outcome. 
  • Integrated motivation refers to behaviour underpinned by values fully that are internalised as ‘part of the person’s sense of self. 
  • Identified motivation refers to behaviours that are accepted and deemed important for personal goals but are not fully internalised. They are also associated with a feeling of choice. 
  • Introjected motivation refers to behaviours performed out of obligation or to avoid shame or embarrassment. 
  • Amotivation is a state in which individuals lack intention to act because of disinterest or a sense of incompetence. 

About the research

The research applied SDT to examine how innovation champions are motivated in one type of public service-oriented organisation, the not-for-profit context. It involved six human services not-for-profit organisations in regional Australia. 

Case organisations were identified based on the following criteria. They were: 

  • classified as a not-for-profit 
  • operated primarily in the human services sector 
  • medium sized with less than 200 employees 
  • operated within the same region in Australia 
  • an innovation champion was identifiable. 

What the research found

The research findings challenge stereotypical views of not-for-profit, and by extension other public service-oriented, employees as being largely motivated by ‘doing good’. It highlights boredom as a force for innovation and surfaces the complex nature of forces driving innovation champions. 

The research also found that champions could be motivated by both prosocial and intrinsic factors at the same time, but also at different times for the same project. For some champions, prosocial motivation was integral to maintaining their innovative activity. Knowing that it was ‘the right thing to do’ was sufficient to sustaining their championing until their intrinsic satisfaction returned. 

None of the champions were in ‘frontline’ roles. Some champions drove future-focused innovations which did not generate immediate impact. For example, some were aimed at securing the future survival of the not-for-profit. This ‘prospective championing’ was underpinned by a desire to generating social outcomes well into the future. 

The bottom line

Beyond the focus on social goods, most of the champions expressed an intrinsic motivation for their innovative activity. This indicates public service-oriented organisations should seek out individuals who have an underlying passion for change and a desire to avoid boredom. This reinforces the importance of an organisational mission acting as a guide for the selection and implementation of innovation, rather than individual-level motivation.  

Want to read more? 

Innovating for the greater good: Examining innovation champions and what motivates them Courtney Molloy, Sarah Bankins, Anton Kriz, Lisa Barnes, Australian Journal of Public Administration, February 2023 

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Published Date: 21 June 2023