Five Ways To Make Innovation Teams More Successful

Five Ways To Make Innovation Teams More Successful Gain insights on the unique nature of innovation teams and the implications for building and supporting them. Today’s guest post is b y Helene Cahen, author of FIRE UP INNOVATION: Sparking And Sustaining Innovation Teams.  When working with or in an innovation team, it is essential to consider the unique nature of innovation and its implication in building and supporting the team. Consider the importance of diversity in innovation teams. Diversity in the composition of the team helps achieve better outcomes. Finding innovative solutions requires multiple perspectives, so different aspects of the problem(s) and the solutions are considered. I once had a client who designed an innovative packaging that the consumers loved when they tested it. However, they did not include manufacturing on their innovation team and discovered after two years on the project that it required manufacturing investments that made the preferred solution unaffordable. If manufacturing had been part of the team, the issue would have been identified earlier, and alternative options, both feasible and liked by customers, would have likely emerged. In my book, Fire Up Innovation , I highlight the different forms of diversity, including diversity of experiences, culture, and identity, diversity in roles, and diversity of thinking. Having a diverse innovation team helps break silo thinking and better addresses the complexity of the challenge and the acceleration of the pace of innovation, particularly with the growth of AI. Ensure there are clear processes and tools and good facilitation. While the discussion around innovation teams is often focused on the outcome, having a shared process and tools that team members know to use, and a trained facilitator, are critical. Team members from different functions and backgrounds may have been trained with different processes and tools or have not been trained at all. There are many innovation-related processes (such as design thinking, Lean Thinking, Agile, etc). While my preference is to use design thinking, the process chosen is not as important as having a known and shared process together with a small list of tools that team members are familiar with. In addition, the role and importance of a facilitator is often forgotten. Whether the facilitator is a team member, an internal facilitator, or a hired facilitator, having a knowledgeable person to facilitate, who has the time to think about ways to optimize the process, prepare and lead the meetings, and manage asynchronous work is critical. Often, internal team members don’t have the time or the skills to do this. Therefore, hiring an external facilitator may save time and money by improving collaboration and moving the project forward more efficiently. The goals and expectations of the team need to be clear and include the possibility of failure. It is critical to define criteria for success upfront (so the team can more objectively assess their options throughout the innovation journey) and expected outcomes with precise timing and milestones. It is also essential to acknowledge upfront that innovation is messy, iterative, and likely to fail at times. You may want to consider failures (particularly early on) as part of success, be flexible with the time frame when needed (remember the Challenger O ring failure when issues were identified, but nobody was willing to delay the launch), and embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. The trick here is to build failures by testing early and often and learning from them, which helps avoid costly failures later on when the organization may have invested a lot of time and money. Adopt a user-centric approach. No matter how diversified the team is, there will be biases and blind spots. Including the users at the center of your innovation journey ensures that you regularly get input from those affected by the changes created by innovation. The users can be external or internal (if your innovation is focused on internal changes and your users are an internal group). Being user-centric may mean starting with simple ethnographic research where you observe and/or interview your customers or get data about them, test your concepts and prototypes with users, and design pilot programs or small-scale tests once your innovation is finalized. Protect the innovation teams. Often, the systems, measurements, and approaches that make an organization successful at managing its business can limit the ability of a team to innovate, particularly in large organizations. For instance, too strict of a goal in the early phase of innovation (such as a high-income expectation for a new product when it involves a change of behavior and therefore hard to predict) or impatience in delivering results can kill innovation projects too early. Organizations, particularly large ones, tend to be conservative in their decision, focusing (and sometimes overfocusing) on the risk of failure rather than the potential for success. For innovation teams to thrive, it is helpful to have a champion who can protect the team, allowing them to try new things and supporting early failures while focusing on lessons learned. Creating a safe climate for the team (within reason and clear expectations on what success looks like), yet being ready to stop a project if it does not show its potential at some point by not being overly attached to any outcome, can help the team be more creative and willing to try new things without fear of career repercussions. Remember the unique nature of innovation teams. Whether you are creating or managing an innovation team or are part of one, remember that innovation teams are challenging because of the nature of innovation and the risk of failure. Yet, you can help support a successful outcome by treating the team in a way that matches the unique nature of innovation. Helene Cahen, M.S., author of FIRE UP INNOVATION: Sparking And Sustaining Innovation Teams, is an innovation consultant, trainer, facilitator, and speaker with over 20 years of experience helping companies navigate innovation challenges. As founder and principal consultant at Fire Up Innovation Consulting, she guides Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and non-profits to understand innovation, create innovative new products/services, and build effective teams. She is also a coach for the Berkeley Haas School of Business Executive Program. For more information, please visit Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to become a regular subscriber to this blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week (I promise!). SIGN UP HERE to get the thought LEADERS blog conveniently delivered right to your inbox!