Building innovation teams

I recently enjoyed moderating an almost rowdy dialogue on Building World-Class Innovation Teams, as part of a Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXChange event. This group of high-level executives, all responsible for new products and growth initiatives, were more than willing to shout out ideas, success stories, and a few things to avoid.

At the end, I asked a few people to share what ideas they’d picked up that they most wanted to remember from the session.

1) Commitment to people and how you support and motivate them for innovation

Innovation is about breaking from the status quo and operating on new ideas. By definition, when we ask people to innovate, we force them to be non-conformists. This means those that drive innovation are unlikely to be reinforced by a company’s conventional methods of recognition or personal acknowledgment.

Suggestion to leaders — look for at least one “learning moment” a day where you can model the commitment to innovation and support non-conformity.

2) Rethink “failure”

We had differing opinions in the group about whether we should stop using the word “failure” or simply learn to embrace it. The latter may be hard, but my experience is that all innovative companies use the word directly and liberally. In a talk before my session, Kris Halvorsen, Intuit’s Chief Innovation Officer, described an award they give for  “the failure we learned the most from.” Other mantras you’ll hear — “fail early, fail often, or “if we don’t fail, we aren’t taking enough risks.”  Even my former VP telling me in a performance appraisal … “Jennifer, what you really need is big ugly failure.”

Sometimes redefining success can work. One incubation unit I’ve worked with describes success as  getting to decision rather than successful technology transfer. I don’t see innovative companies, though, skirting the issue of failure or using euphemisms.

3) Formal processes

This is a topic worthy of its own post (watch this space!).

Process can be import for signaling organizational intent, and invaluable for shared learning. The key is using the right degree of structure at the right time. Burdensome processes tend to stifle early creativity necessary to support sustained innovation.

4) Innovation teams embody contradictions

They’re being asked to have new ideas and implement things that may be disruptive, frequently in ways they don’t fully appreciate, in organizations that aren’t generally designed to absorb it. Managers and champions need to recognize this and help teams navigate.

I have to mention that the concept of “Innovation Teams” is something I wrestle with. Deeply innovative companies have a cultural bias the runs through their very DNA.  (Judy Estrin did a spectacular job capturing this in her recent book, The Innovation Gap.)  So I can’t imagine seeing a specialized “Innovation Team” at PARC.

Having said that, if questioning the status quo isn’t a part of your organizational orthodoxy, then creating and support formal, fluid Innovation Teams can be an important step.

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