Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Under the Microscope

Are you familiar with the Hawthorne effect? That's the added productivity you receive when people are aware that you are watching them closely. The Hawthorne effect has proven to be instrumental in some areas of productivity, but constant oversight of an innovation program is probably the most disruptive and difficult things to overcome.

Think about this for a minute and you'll quickly agree. Your team has been asked to create something new, something really radical and different. Of course it will be different than what the firm does or produces currently, and will take resources away from doing the daily work, which produces revenue. You'll need to question a lot the firm already does, and identify needs or markets the firm has missed or ignored. All the while, of course, reporting back to a team that on one hand would like some really interesting new ideas, and on the other hand doesn't want to rock the boat too much.

So, the classic debate in many of these meetings becomes, one one hand, are we being disruptive enough? And, on the other hand, are we being too disruptive? The team is very conscious of the steering team and the people who will review and evaluate the work, and anticipates the kind of reception their work and ideas will receive. If Boss "A" is likely to reject anything new, then the team is likely to be more conservative and frustrate the members who want more innovative ideas. If Boss "B" is likely to request dramatic innovation, this energizes the deep thinkers but worries the more conservative members of the team.

There's a real catch 22 going on in most innovation teams, a huge cognitive dissonance. They are asked, at least for a while, to step away from everything they know to be true about the firm and think up new ideas, all the while knowing that the product of their efforts will be judged by their existing management team and its expectations. What can you do about this?

When you set up an innovation team, define very carefully the expectations that the entire management team has. This eliminates the concerns that some executives will look favorably on the work while others will be angry or upset about certain outcomes. If you can't achieve that level of psychic harmony, place all the work under one manager who has the charter to do what's necessary to innovate. Then, the turf wars may be fought, but they'll be fought and argued away from the team. Next, if your executive team wants disruptive ideas, say so and reward those ideas, and as much as possible stock the team with people who are willing and able to generate those kinds of ideas. Next, tell the team that every idea will receive due consideration based on how it helps achieve the innovation goals that were set forth, whether the idea is "disruptive" or incremental. What? You didn't set clear innovation goals? Well, that's always a problem. It's actually easier for the teams to work when a clear goal (gain 5 points of market share) is introduced. Those goals for the effort frame up the kinds of ideas, products and services that are necessary, and remove a bit of the politics. It's much easier to argue for a radical innovation when that's the only way to achieve the stated goal.

Look, innovation is tough in any circumstance, and every clear thinking member wants to achieve the expectations of his or her management team. Typically, innovation teams are made up of people assigned to a cross functional team and responsible to an innovation leader or manager. This means that the individuals on the team have at least two loyalties - to their "home" manager and to the innovation manager. But since the innovation manager is probably temporary, there needs to be very compelling reasons to do things that might get the participants in trouble with their "home" or permanent managers or executives. We create enough uncertainty around innovation without causing all of these political games. Let's give the teams the space they need to work, so they don't constantly feel like they are under a microscope.

While it seems a minor point, I know from experience that a tremendous amount of effort is expended trying to satisfy these mutually exclusive issues. Rather than spend all their time focused on new ideas, many team members are constantly trying to determine how the idea will be received, or what challenges or issues they'll confront if they support an idea. Whose ox will be gored? If you want a successful, engaged innovation team, give them clear guidelines and goals, and eliminate as much of the politics as possible.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:47 AM


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