Build a Fast and Efficient Innovation Team

Since we’re obliged to pursue innovation in a competitive marketplace, speed matters. In fact, it matters a great deal, for your competitors aren’t waiting, and you cannot afford to allow them to get too far ahead. The faster you recognize new trends, threats, and opportunities, the faster great ideas get discovered and created, the faster they get to market, the faster you earn money, build brand, and extend the relevance and reach of your firm into the future.

Weeks or months of delay can be hugely costly, and longer delays can even be fatal. The market is changing, and while the firms that get the right products and services to market most quickly are usually in the best position to gain significant advantage, the ones that wait may find no market space remaining, especially when we account for the compounding of advantages that winner-take-all technology dynamics enable. The issue for you, then, is knowing how to speed things up.

You’ve already thought through the dynamics of change as it pertains specifically to your markets, and you’ve come up with lots of ides and figured out which ones are the great ones, and by following rigorous steps to build your portfolio you’ve identified the ideal mix of future products and services for the immediate term, mid term, and long term. Now all you have to is develop them!

In this article and the next we will explore a set of specific practices and techniques that should help. We will describe approaches for fast and efficient teaming, innovation networks, collaborative design, rapid prototyping, the concept of the “minimum viable product,” a-b testing, and agility.

Behind all of these techniques it’s worth noting that while you may think that you have to balance between moving too fast and moving too slow, in fact that’s rarely the case. There are precious few examples of innovation too fast, while the vast majority of business failures, the giant mountain of irrelevance and collapse, should properly be understood as a monument to slowness. The trick, of course, is to go super fast without taking the wrong kinds of risk. We will elaborate here.

Fast and Efficient Teaming

Teams are the essential motive force of most innovation projects. Innovation almost always involves people working together, integrating disparate sets of knowledge from across the entire range of the firm’s operations, including product, finance, marketing, sales, service, and/or delivery, so you’ll need to have people with knowledge of all these facets involved.

However, assigning a group of people to a task and then assigning them a meeting room to get the work done, does not an effective team make. Many teams are entirely dysfunctional, and the reasons for this are many: interpersonal issues, bias, agendas, personalities, unclarity of goals, lack of time, and lack of focus all inhibit their performance and the results.

When they work well, teams are well suited to the fascinating intellectual challenges of exploration work, because self-organized team members are likely to be fully engaged and self-motivated and willing to take on and do a brilliant job with the many complex and challenging tasks that are required to achieve innovation success.

This is why Steve Jobs said, “My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”¹

Committees are often innovation inhibitors because they represent a form of centralized authority whose deliberations are typically slower – much slower – than the changing markets they are set up to address.

This is in direct contrast to the unwieldy beast we call “the committee.” Committees are often innovation inhibitors because they represent a form of centralized authority whose deliberations are typically slower – much slower – than the changing markets they are set up to address.

For example, during the 1980s when HP was making the transition from being a maker of electronic instruments to a computer company, managers throughout the company saw opportunities to develop new computer products. Soon, however, HP’s name was on a confusing array of different and incompatible machines, so committees were set up to ensure sufficient coordination. What happened then was unexpected, as the committee process brought the pace of new product development to a crawl, and HP quickly fell behind the market. In the words of HP co-founder David Packard, “By 1990, we faced a crisis. Committees had taken over the decision-making process at HP, and decision cycle times had ballooned. For example, one central committee, the Computer Business Executive Committee, was intended to achieve better focus and coordination for computer activities. Instead, it was slowing vital decisions just as our company entered the lightning- fast competitive world of computers in the 1990s. In fact, the paralysis was spreading to areas of the company that had nothing to do with computers.”² The committees were scrapped, and the divisions were freed once again to innovate and compete on the merits of the value they could create.

So what’s the difference between a committee and a team? Give the team a goal. And make it ambitious. Give them a deadline, and make it an aggressive one. And make sure to give them the time and resources to succeed.

Hence, instead of relying on conventional practice and hoping that people will interact effectively, a team is specifically charged, thus avoiding the common problem that “if everybody is responsible, then nobody is responsible.”

An effective team consists of those with the skills necessary to analyze the idea, design usage vignettes, develop early prototypes, interact with the client participants to solicit their input, and promote the idea across the organization to solicit interest, feedback, and participation. These tasks are accomplished through iterative work, each layer of which progresses an idea from its initial state of fuzziness through advancing levels of refinement.

Overall, success at innovation requires organizations to develop very high levels of proficiency in forming and managing teams, as these intentional groups may require focused leadership and careful facilitation to work effectively, and it may be up to you to provide it.

The Right People

One of the downfalls of the business process re-engineering (BPR) movement from the 1990s was the expectation that good processes could compensate for less capable staff. Getting the right people wasn’t considered to be as critical to success as getting the right process.

Attaining speed requires a perspective similar to Steve Jobs, who had no tolerance for anyone less than world-class talent.

Approaches oriented to speed, are nearly the opposite. While some structure and process is certainly needed, attaining speed requires a perspective similar to Steve Jobs, who had no tolerance for anyone less than world-class talent. Either you were A Team material or you were entirely unqualified, although his language was often quite a bit more colorful, replete with terms like “complete bozo” to express his disdain for those who were less than excellent. Jobs had a very clear focus on eliminating bozos and working only with the A players.

This is how Jobs expressed it to Walter Isaacson: “For most things in life, the range between best and average is 30% or so. The best airplane flight, the best meal, they may be 30% better than your average one. What I saw with Woz was somebody who was 50 times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head. The Mac team was an attempt to build a whole team like that, A players. People said that they wouldn’t get along, they’d hate working with each other. But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. At Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple, that’s what I decided to try to do. You need to have a collaborative hiring process. When we hire someone, even if they’re going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers. My role model was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I read about the type of people he sought for the atom bomb project. I wasn’t nearly as good as he was, but that’s what I aspired to do.”³

Allowing C players into the organization was like opening a crack in a dam. Soon, the whole place would be flooded with mediocrity, and great work would become marginalized if not utterly impossible. The whole process slows to a crawl.

Without the right people nothing great gets built; without a laser focus on speed, extraneous activities creep in that detract from both quality and timing; and without a useful (but minimal) process framework you’ll inevitably see the inefficiencies balloon, and the level of bureaucracy may soon get out of hand.

Getting the right people implies, of course, that you must also get rid of the wrong ones. At a more subtle level, it also means that you need to recruit people with the highly desirable (and therefore elusive) combination of the right technical skills, the innovation mindset, and an additional set of innovation-specific skills which are not so widely understood.

The Right Skills

You already know what the technical business skills are: finance, marketing, sales, programming, operations, supply chain, etc., and to attain high speed it’s also wise to engage with people who have innovation skills, like interface design, product design, all of the engineering disciplines, human factors design, and many others.

But engagement and speed are not only a matter of attitude and vision. Effective innovation teams also require the right requisite technical skills, a set of talents and aptitudes that are particular to the innovation process, including empathy, listening, observing, modeling, ideating, and acceptance of or tolerance for risk.

It’s likely that in the future people will include innovation aptitudes on their resumes, but at present they fall outside of business norms, so you may have to probe carefully when you’re hiring to find people who are proficient in these skills:

  • Empathy. Success at innovation requires people who see and listen very deeply, a skill known as empathy. Those with high empathy and great observational skills are essential participants in the innovation process.
  • Listening and Observing. In Chapter 4 we explored the importance of observing how people think and interact, as it enables us to recognize the emotional connections they have with other people, ideas, products, services, and brands.
  • Modeling. Innovation teams require people who can take a set of observations and extract the essential learnings, the process we call modeling. These are abstract, conceptual skills.
  • Ideating. People who are come up with ideas, great ideas, creative people, wild thinkers, and people who make surprising connections are all key contributors to innovation.
  • Risk tolerance. Exploration and experimentation, the foundations of most innovation activities, involve the risk of making mistakes – of failing – and then learning from those mistakes. Those who are not comfortable in this mode of work may not be such a good fit for the innovation effort.

These skills are essential, but as they are not the norm in most organizations, it’s important that they be protected so that they can indeed thrive. As Rob Austin and Lee Devin have noted, “Artful managers must also do their part; they must create conditions in which makers can work at risk. Willingness to work at risk is vital in artful making, in part because exploration is uncomfortable.”⁴

The most successful innovation teams have all of these skills.

It’s not realistic to expect to find all of these skills in one person, but talented innovation team members may possess two or three of them, and the most successful innovation teams have all of these skills.

Once we recognize the importance of these roles, it’s easier to grasp why most large organizations aren’t very good at innovation: most rarely (never?) recruit for these skills, and few compose innovation teams with these in mind.

Not surprisingly, venture capital backed start-ups that are more sensitized to the critical importance of innovation often do recruit for these specific talents, and one of the most prestigious training grounds for these skills is in the heart of Silicon Valley at the Stanford University graduate program called the “d school.” “D” stands for design, and the method they teach is called “design thinking,” which emphasizes, naturally enough, empathy, ideation, and prototyping.

The lovely book by Idris Mootee explains this quite eloquently. “Design thinking is the search for a magical balance between business and art; structure and chaos; intuition and logic; concept and execution; playfulness and formality; and control and empowerment.”⁵

Program graduates are highly sought after, and generally have no problem finding great positions in outstanding companies throughout Silicon Valley and beyond.

By Langdon Morris

About the author:


Since 2001, Langdon Morris has led the innovation consulting practice of InnovationLabs LLC, where he is a senior partner and co-founder. He is also a partner of FutureLab Consulting. He is recognized as one the world’s leading thinkers and consultants on innovation, and his original and ground-breaking work has been adopted by corporations and universities on every continent to help them improve their innovation processes and the results they achieve. His recent works Agile Innovation, The Innovation Master Plan and Permanent Innovation are recognized as three of the leading innovation books of the last 5 years.

References:

  1. Brent Schlender, “The Lost Steve Jobs Tapes,” Fast Company Magazine, April 17, 2012.
  2. David Packard. The HP Way. HarperBusiness, 1995.
  3. Walter Isaacson. Steve Jobs. Simon & Schuster, 2011. Page 363.
  4. Rob Austin and Lee Devin, Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work. Financial Times, 2003.
  5. Idris Mootee. Design Thinking for Strategic Innovation. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Photo: businessman in jump against sketch background from Shutterstock.com

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