Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Forming, norming and training an innovation team for success

For most people and organizations, developing a skill or competency takes time.  The development of a skill usually starts with the basics - the building blocks of an activity.  When we learn new tools or activities, it's not unusual to break them down into smaller components to learn the basics.  For example, when I learned a tennis serve, it was in a series of small steps:  how to stand, how to toss the ball, how to hold the racket, how to hit the ball.  These small, incremental steps are all important, and when reasonably mastered can be placed together at speed to become the full activity.  It's very difficult to learn any new activity or methodology as a whole, and even more difficult to master an activity or tool unless you learn the components that make up the whole task.  Whether you are learning to serve a tennis ball, or learning to place debits and credits in the right columns, you typically start with the smallest activity or unit of work, master that and then press on to learn the next sub-task or activity.  Only when you have a reasonable understanding of each task or activity do you begin to put the entire activity together.  Much like playing the piano, you may learn only a few measures of a song at a time, or perhaps only the left or right hand portion of the song at a time, then put it all together.

This notion of breaking things down, mastering the small activities and steps and then bringing the complete method or activity together once the small steps are mastered has been a trusted way of learning new or complex activities since man evolved and learned to pass on knowledge.  Why then do we ignore this proven methodology when we innovate?

Anything but the ordinary

When large companies innovate, they recruit a group of people who are typically very good at their regular jobs.  They define a hazy, often unrealistic new goal:  bring us a killer new product idea.  Then they place the team under unrealistic timelines and shoot the starter's pistol.  There's no team formation or "norming", there's no skill development and there's often little shared understanding or even any real belief that the activity is anything more than an academic exercise, to show "management" that there are teams working on the "next big thing".  No one stops to wonder if the team has any hope of achieving that goal.

Innovation is anything but the ordinary for the vast majority of employees, managers and executives.  The ordinary is what they do every day.  It's repeatable, it's measurable, it has been done before, and most of the risk and uncertainty has been beaten out of the ordinary.  The scope is well-defined, the deliverables are evident and the ROI is proven.  This is the "ordinary" day for the vast majority of people, and we've trained them well to perform in this ordinary way.

Now, when we innovate, we tend to ignore every truism about learning, change management and uncertainty.  We gather a cross-functional group of highly capable managers (because that's what we do with every project) and tell them to find a big new idea.  The instructions are a big vague because those giving the instructions don't really know what they want or need, only that it is something bigger and different from what they have.  So an unprepared team that has little ramp-up pursues a vague, poorly defined outcome with little training or tools.  Instead of breaking down the important actions and learning how to do innovation well, we ask that our innovation teams hold serve at Wimbledon against Nadel, starting tomorrow.  Oh, and win while you are there, by the way.

Building an innovation competency

If in all other forms of human endeavor the practice is to learn an activity by breaking down into smaller sub-activities, practicing and perfecting the sub-activities before trying to complete the entire activity, why would we toss our teams to the lions in the way most executives do when they ask a recently formed and unprepared team to innovate?  When push comes to shove, "everyone" knows that innovation is about finding new ideas, so the team will move quickly and ineffectively to generate ideas. But without experience or training, and lacking good definition, any idea that isn't very similar to existing products and services will be rejected.  They know no other outcome.

Ah, you'll claim.  We don't have that problem.  We provide training on innovation tools for our people and many of them have completed innovation training, back, six or eight months ago.  In many cases, this is almost as useless as turning the team loose with no training at all.  Innovation tools and methods are far different from what people do everyday, and unless an innovation activity follows on quickly after the training on innovation tools, the knowledge is useless because it is not reinforced.  People will quickly revert to what they know well, and do everyday, so innovation looks an awful lot like daily business as usual, with the same constraints using the same tools.  No wonder a lot of innovation is barely differentiated from existing products.

Effective Innovation
To conduct an innovation activity effectively, one must first "norm" the team that was formed.  The team needs to trust each other to do the work they will be called on to do.  That forming and norming takes time, and the team must adjust to a new working rhythm and reality.  Second, the team must receive training on an innovation method or process that will support the activities necessary for innovation success, and must receive in-depth training on the tools and methods responsible for the upcoming phase.  We call this "just in time" training, because it occurs just as the team will need the tools, and allows them to use the tools in the context of an important activity, rather than as an academic exercise.

An investment in your future

The recommendation I'm making - to form and norm the team, to provide them training in the tools they'll use and ensure a practical, well defined project scope or objectives - will take what is most precious today - resource time.  Money is cheap and resources are valuable, but you can't trade money for time in this exchange.  People need the time to form and norm, to learn a new way to think and to trust each other.  They need time to learn and exercise new tools.  Unless and until you are willing to make that investment, you'll simply waste what little time and money you are willing to spend on innovation.

Rather than thinking of innovation as a means to gain a compelling new product or a differentiated service, think about innovation as an investment in your future capabilities.  Innovation, done well, is a powerful tool that can be repeated.  Done poorly, it builds antibodies in your organization that will resist change even more vehemently the next time you try.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM


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