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Corporate Smugglers: Championing Ideas Under the Radar

Idea champions are often revered for the promotion and development of ideas in companies. Their stories inspire us as well as cater to our need to learn about heroes that exhibit the kind of bravery we would like in ourselves. We hear of individuals who stand against opposition of others and confidently push their ideas through the organization. We see these champions as icons of change embodying the risk-taking and perseverance necessary to gain acceptance for ideas that disrupt the status quo.

But there is also another side to championing ideas. A side less discussed and perhaps less heroic, but definitely just as important. This flipside is not ruled by individual heroes or assertive activity but collaborative efforts and subtle means of gaining acceptance for one's ideas. Here, ideas are smuggled rather than championed.

In many situations using the strategy of assertive championing may not be the most beneficial for generating acceptance for one's ideas. Pushing too hard and too fast can generate resistance in an organization and the champion might end up with less support than she began with. While champions are described as pushing their ideas continuously and relentlessly, successful smugglers are careful not to insist too often, too long, or too strongly. Presenting the idea playfully and testing the ground is important in order not to be labeled as a trouble-maker.

While the champions we hear about don't seem to mind such a label and even thrive in this role, it may be too difficult a position for a champion that doesn't have the necessary freedom or power in the organization. Or he may simply be unwilling to endure the necessary conflicts. Smugglers may thus let go of an idea for now and possibly bring it up again after a while (even years later) when the opportunity emerges. Many champions who choose to take up a smuggling strategy feel by letting go of some of their ideas they are able to secure a position where they can get more of their ideas accepted over a longer time period. Smugglers thus demonstrate perseverance, but in a different form from the one we are accustomed to linking to champions.

Acting as an active agent of strategic change may not be a preferred strategy by champions who wish to have their ideas accepted fast and easily. Thus, instead of celebrating the novelty of their idea these smugglers often highlight its fit to current strategies, thereby aiming to reduce the sense of risk related to the idea. Further, they frequently rely on creating external pressure from e.g. customers towards the idea instead of relying on their ability to raise internal enthusiasm towards strategic change.

A champion is perceived as an informal leader of idea development efforts and it is seen as his responsibility to provide others with a compelling vision. Confidence in oneself and one's idea is taken as a key element in this activity. When using the smuggling tactic, however, these positions are challenged. Smugglers realize that involving others to the actual construction of the idea is also a powerful way to create commitment towards it. When people feel that they have a chance to contribute to the essence of the idea, they are likely to have a sense of ownership towards it and act as co-champions themselves. The genuine inclusion of others is not easy, however, since it requires allowing someone else to actually have a say in the larger vision. And this openness includes the disclosure of uncertainty and ambiguity—qualities which are often seen to undermine the credibility of champions.

Yet, when building acceptance through collaborative construction these are fundamental components in making the co-champion feel that she has a genuine possibility to contribute. Including others to the construction of the idea doesn't have to be an intentional effort to build support (and it actually works much better if this is the case and the champion is actually seeking help), but nevertheless, it is efficient in generating both acceptance and support for the idea. So by making compromises to the original vision and disclosing uncertainty, the smuggler is able to generate deeper commitment toward the idea that might have been possible through more assertive championing tactics.

So, don't worry if you don't have the confidence of Steve Jobs and the charisma of Oprah Winfrey. One doesn't have to be an assertive hero in order to get one's ideas accepted in organizations. Sometimes the more subtle, flexible, and collaborative approaches work better. At times, displaying your uncertainty can prove to be an asset. And one shouldn't think that there are two kinds of people advancing ideas in organizations: the Smugglers and the Champions. Smuggling and championing are different strategies and can be applied by the same individuals in different situations. They can even be applied for the same idea, by championing some elements of the idea while smuggling others. These tactics are two sides of the same coin and by applying both one will be more likely to generate acceptance for one's ideas.

Tea Lempiälä is a researcher and project manager at Innovation Management Institute, Aalto University, Finland. She is managing a four-year research project examining the ways in which organizations can better support the innovativeness of their employees.