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critical friend

Critical Friend

7 ways we can use a critical friend to accelerate innovation

I’m sure you’d agree that we all need friends. To celebrate with in the good times; and to help us through the hard. But you probably wouldn’t consider seeking out friends as essential business strategy. Nor would you likely think that a critical friend was someone beneficial.

You’d be wrong. First coined in educational circles in the 1970s, the idea of a critical friend is now seen as an important component of helping individuals and businesses innovate and improve.

So, what is a critical friend?

In short, it’s someone you trust to offer you a constructive, external perspective with honesty and insight. They’re an ally with no agenda beyond helping you to de-risk, robust and accelerate your own mission. They’ll be an expert in your field, take time to fully understand your context, and ask provocative, astute questions that will help you think differently.

By being independent of your business, a critical friend can see areas of required improvement that you might be blind to (or deliberately avoiding). We all suffer from tunnel vision at times, but the role of a critical friend is to kindly bring these hard truths to the light. They’ll constructively raise perceived weaknesses, problems or issues with your current systems or processes, all with the aim of helping you think outside the box and find better ways forward.

How are they different from a buddy, mentor or coach?

A critical friend is not your sounding board. Nor are they someone who’s there to comfort you and offer support (though they may do this too). They’re an independent expert with detailed knowledge of your sector, who will provide you with challenging insights, informed advice, new options and a fresh perspective.

In this way, a critical friend is very different to the idea of a business buddy, mentor or coach. All these roles are important, but they take a non-directive approach. They’re defined by providing a safe space for you to offload, explore ideas and find your own solutions. In contrast, a critical friend will use their expertise to openly and frankly challenge both your thinking and actions, helping you maintain a continuous proactive cycle of improvement.

How can a critical friend help me innovate?

By its very definition, innovation – especially disruptive innovation – requires sideways, out-of-the-box thinking. It’s about challenging assumptions, exploring fresh approaches and discovering new strategic opportunities. That’s hard to do on your own or within a small team, particularly when you’re all within the same company culture and share a particular way of thinking.

You may have heard of an “echo chamber”. This describes an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own. Whether you realise it or not, the chances are that you’re in one, at least to some degree.

So here we see the value of a critical friend. Because they’re objective and outside of your company, they’ll assess your approach from an entirely fresh, yet independent expert perspective. By asking you why you do things in a certain way, they’ll help you to start to see things differently.

What type of innovation activities might a critical friend work on?

You can choose to engage a critical friend to help you with any area of work. However, in my experience, these are the main innovation activities where their input has the greatest value:

  1. Strategic advice;
  2. Responsive troubleshooting for processes, structures or cultural challenges;
  3. Identifying, screening and prioritising opportunities;
  4. Training, coaching or mentoring;
  5. Technical due diligence to support investigations leading to potential acquisition;
  6. Rapid proof-of-principle technology prototyping or business model demonstrators;
  7. Supporting brainstorms, design reviews or technical analysis on specific projects.


I think about a critical friend as a multiplier of my own, and my team’s capabilities – and if I could give my 20-year old self some advice, it would have been to get a critical friend quicker!

If you’re interested to explore how the team and I can provide a critical friend perspective on your innovation challenges, please get in touch – I’d love to connect and chat.


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