Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Choosing an innovation team

There are few other business initiatives that rely as heavily on the "right" people as an innovation initiative. That's because unlike most other work in an organization, innovation is risky, uncertain, poorly defined and at odds with most of the rest of the work of the organization. Since there are no processes or methodologies, people play a much more significant role, and an innovation initiative will often live or die by the people who participate.

Given that, it's somewhat surprising to me how little thought is given to who is on the innovation team. In many instances when I quiz our clients about how a team was put together, we find out that many of the people on the team were assigned. You know how this works - management dictates a head tax of one person per product group or business function, and the executives scramble to find out who is 1)available and 2) won't embarrass them, not who is the best candidate for the role. The best people are reserved for key projects already underway. So, many innovation teams are made up of people who aren't necessarily the best innovators and who often were unwilling participants.

Innovation teams should be made up of VOLUNTEERS who are completely committed to the concept. If the work is going to be difficult and risky, I would at least like to know that the people on the team want to be there and want to make a difference. I want people who are ENGAGED, not assigned and who want to create change. I don't care as much about experience as I do PASSION, since when all else fails it will be the desire and passion that pushes through the barriers. I am interested in RULE BREAKERS, not rule takers. People who accept the rules as stated (or unstated in a culture) will not effect great change. I want people on the team who are willing to go the extra mile, since innovation will always require more work than their current job. Nine to fivers will find it difficult. I want people who are comfortable with ambiguity, since innovation often works outside the lines of black and white, in the gray areas where there are no templates. People who are too comfortable with either/or propositions aren't successful innovators.

Additionally I want people who understand that innovation is as much about learning as it is about creating, so they understand that the ideas will occasionally fail. I need people on the innovation team to be willing to discover what's great about an idea rather than what's wrong with it. I need the first words out of their mouths to be "What if" rather than "But". I want people who don't care how we did it before, or whether the idea has been considered before. I want people who look for opportunities for success rather than reasons not to try.

Finally, I want a balanced team. I've written before about concepts like KAI and the FourSight model, but a recent training exercise brought this home. In the training I felt the team was not engaged, until we started working on the skills necesary for idea generation, evaluation and prototyping, when the team seemed much more engaged. Once again this brought home the fact that some people are synthesizers, some ideators and some developers. Understanding the preferences and skills and balancing those skills on the team is vital. The Foursight model does a good job of helping you understand each person's predilection, which can help you balance the team. Everyone can participate in an innovation effort, given the appropriate mindsets (see above) and everyone has a different range of interests and skills. Building a team with five ideators and no developers is dangerous because the team will be biased toward generating ideas but may never actually develop anything.

Let's look at this another way. If you were planning to scale a mountain, you'd recruit people you knew had the skills to climb the mountain and consider what each person brought to the team. You'd remind them of the challenges and the dangers and ask anyone who had doubts or concerns to leave. You'd look for a good balance of skills and capabilities and experiences. You'd leave anyone behind who was doubtful of the outcome. In other words, you'd recruit and build a team that was more likely to be successful from the start. Why would you do anything less when building an innovation team? If innovation is critical for your business, and if it is a high-stakes activity, then why wouldn't you build the team in exactly the same way?

There's an old saying that some people are born to greatness and others have it thrust upon them. Don't allow just anyone to be thrust upon you in your innovation team. Set high expectations and recruit the best people - in fact, have them apply to be part of the team.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:13 AM

48 Comments:

Anonymous James Gardner said...

Its ridiculous some of the people you see on Innovation teams. In banking, you get failed IT architects more often than not. Or else product managers who have failed to make their numbers, or else accountants who can't focus on numbers...

So I agree with all your points.

J.

5:46 AM  
Anonymous Liz Cosline said...

Love the talk about balancing the team. Often the best ideas come from discussions of ideas and not always agreeing at first. Good points.

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Anonymous Kaushal said...

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11:45 PM  
OpenID marktamis said...

I agree with your ideals for building an innovation team - however, what I miss in the above is the idea of sustainability. You need to understand what makes people be interested in being part of such a team on the long term, not only the mid-term satisfaction of generating such ideas and seeing them turned into new value-propositions.

I am very much for organising for innovation. Not only should participants be volunteers, but also have a stake in it, have it be part of their job description, and also show that can be a positive step in a career-building strategy, not just a dead-end where non-performing employees (in the traditional sense...) end up to keep them 'occupied'(this in any case will be counterproductive to your innovation teambuilding efforts).

Innovation should be a careerpath like any other, with motivators like for any other job description. Furthermore, there should be sufficient flexibility to include ideas from other parts of the organisation on an ad-hoc basis, and even outside of the enterprise membrame such as from partners, suppliers ...and customers!

Innovation should not be be a fringe activity, but central to business for long-term sustainability of its activity (and very existence).

Organise for innovation.

2:48 AM  
Anonymous Ellen said...

Nice mountain climbing analogy. Mitigating risk in the innovation process is so important, yet many overlook team selection as the most important first step.

It's also important to clearly define the qualities of the right people. As you point out, those who are best in one area of the business, may not be best at innovation!

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Anonymous Denis said...

Interesting article. This prompted me to write a blog post about something I've been thinking about for a while, namely the use of social networks within enterprises to identify naturally motivated teams.

Thanks.

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