POINT OF VIEW
regardless of industry, EVERY LEADER, needs to possess the ability to build a great team and support it. But as teams go, innovation teams are unique. Research shows that innovation benefits from a high degree of diversity, technical depth and people with complementary mindsets and process tendencies.
Leaders don’t always get to choose their team members from the start, so they often need to nudge people to find new ways to work, even as they actively bring people in or move people out of the group. Following are five principles for leaders of innovation teams to keep in mind.
These are people with a track record EMBRACE THE ‘BUILDERS’. of getting things into the world in some way, shape or form — hopefully within your organization and hopefully in different environments. Sometimes scrappy and entrepreneurial, they exhibit intense curiosity, value continuous learning and are willing to try new things, welcoming as much feedback as possible.
Builders aren’t going to wait for you to tell them what to make, and they’re rarely going to show up with a single idea. They’ll bring several ideas to the table, usually right from the start, even if they don’t completely believe in each. Make sure you have people who are not only general builders, but are capable of building the types of innovation you’ve prioritized — whether it be in the realm of services, technology, channels, partnerships, or marketing. Once you’ve got them, use them well. If you’ve got builders sitting around waiting for strategy to happen, you’re going to be dealing with decreased motivation and moonlighting.
Frank Hauser’s Notes on Directing is a classic compendium of advice for theatre directors working with actors and crew. Written as a series of brief aphorisms — like ‘Don’t expect to have all the answers’, the book is filled with tips that are equally useful for anyone working in creative collaborations. One such pithy piece of advice is: ‘Never keep the talent waiting’.
Some people love generatDIVERSIFY AND BALANCE THE TEAM. ing ideas, but are less energized about executing them; others love planning and research, but get anxious committing to a direction. It is your job to find the right mix of attitudes and tendencies — and to correct for deficiencies as you go along.
One common problem I have seen is a team weighted to one extreme or the other. These teams keep spinning their wheels (moving Post-its and generating ideas without getting to anything concrete) or jump the gun and start designing in excruciating detail the first idea that materializes. Of course sometimes the first idea is the right idea, and sometimes we really don’t know enough about the customer. Too much exploring or too much execution can be counterproductive. You need to find a balance of insight and action, prototyping and strategy.
Find people who are able to commit the DEMAND DEDICATION. time and energy to the project. Your team members should be able to commit six uninterrupted hours four times a week, or they’re off the project. It is even more important for your team to be dedicated than for it to be cross-functional. I’d rather work with a balanced, diverse three-person team who are ‘all in’ than 15 people who cover every division of the company but can never find time to do the hard work.
In my experience, teams that do OWN THE WHOLE PROBLEM. this are more successful and build better innovation. Embracing the whole problem means:
• Identifying customer problems;
• Discovering and distilling customer insights;
• Prototyping and getting feedback on ideas through experimentation;
• Designing winning solutions and value propositions;
• Creating business model opportunities and implications; and
• Getting new offerings and businesses launched.
Ideally, all team members should be proficient, or at least, interested in all of these aspects of the problem. Otherwise, you’ll miss out on the true value of a multidisciplinary approach.
As The New York Times was experimenting with building its approach to digital product development, it learned that a good initial team would be composed of a product person, a design person, a technologist and an editor, with support from market research. Despite their different backgrounds, everyone was expected to care about the customer, the solution, the business model, and the importance of everyone else’s technical domain.
As you watch your team interact, notice their patterns so that you can adjust for imbalances. Productive disagreement is fine — in fact, you want diversity of opinions as well as diversity in general — but you want your whole team to be invested in collaborating and owning the whole problem. If there’s someone on your team with valuable expertise that is not being utilized, that’s a problem, and it’s the leader’s job to recognize it.
Even the wrong problem can get you started on discovering the right one.
Innovation is hard work, and FREE PEOPLE UP TO DO THE WORK. you have to help your team members stay focused on solving the problem. That is near impossible if a significant portion of a team’s time is focused on creating presentations to get stakeholders up to speed on what’s happening. Sharing what they’re trying, what they’re learning and what they’re building is important, but don’t let ‘reporting’ become an end in itself. As a leader, you should help shoulder the burden of status reports and executive updates. Consider encouraging teams to use ‘stand ups’, especially with extended teams. In a stand up, the entire meeting lasts 15 minutes, with each person simply sharing progress made yesterday and progress to be made today.
To keep things pushing forward, use deadlines SET THE PACE. creatively. A trick I like to use with new clients is to schedule customer feedback sessions as soon as a week or two into working together. When we schedule these sessions, we don’t have anything to show yet — but knowing that customers are on the calendar gets the team moving, expressing their hunches as prototypes, and helps to remove any resistance to spending time with customers. This is what the Lean Startup and customer discovery people are doing when they force workshop participants to ‘get out of the building’.
The same type of thinking can be useful later in a project. Agile software development offers lots of techniques and methods for assessing work and setting schedules, but not all innovation is software-based or solely software,
so you have to find other ways to set deadlines.
When we were transitioning from the early stages of defining what would become NYT Cooking, The New York Times team had to decide what interactions and features would go into the first pilot. Instead of debating the interactions and features, we set a date in early December and used that to help decide which features were most important to test our assumptions and that we’d be able to execute reasonably well. When asked by the team why we chose this date, I said we’d want to be done with development by Thanksgiving and run the initial pilot in early December before the holiday season picked up. The truth is, there was no real reason other than to keep things moving.
Finally, some tactical advice for moving forward once your team is ready to go.
1. Form a problem statement
It’s become cliché, perhaps, but it’s still important to ‘fall in love with the problem, not the solution’. Don’t hurry through finding a problem statement, but don’t agonize over it either. Just throw something out there and start to refine it. Even the wrong problem, so to speak, can get you started
on discovering the right one. If you’re stuck, start exploring assumptions you have about the basic motivations and behaviours of customers. A good definition of product design comes from the designer Keenan Cummings: “Recognizing patterns of human behaviour, discovering the motivations and impulses that drive those patterns, [and then] creating [offerings] that improve or elevate the output of those behaviours.” Understanding those patterns of behaviour, motivations, and opportunities will get you well on your way to defining the problem.
2. Use strategic questions to guide discovery.
A question can only be considered ‘strategic’ if it has an answer that will make or break the solution or validate or invalidate an assumption. Strategic questions might be as farreaching as, How are tomorrow’s customers different and similar to today’s? And, What regulatory changes might impact our potential solutions? They also might be ‘small’, yet important like: What does ‘fun’ mean in the kitchen, when cooking a meal? Or, How much variety in recipes is exciting and how much becomes too taxing?
I like to draw a distinction between questions where the answers are knowable and questions where the answers are discoverable. Knowable answers can be looked up: there’s an answer out there and you just have to find it. Discoverable answers are ones you have to figure out through prototyping and experimentation. This difference can help you direct a team’s research more productively — but you’ll need to make sure they ask both kinds of questions.
Imagine for a second that you are interested in creating a new financial services offering for young people, to help them establish themselves on a path to lifelong financial wellness. Figure One shows some of the strategic questions you could ask and whether they are mostly knowable, discoverable, or an interesting hybrid. The last column shows how we might get more insight or evidence of the ‘right’ answer. It’s better to use prototyping to accelerate customer research and to test assumptions quickly, so whenever you see a hybrid question, expect to use low-fidelity prototypes to explore the answer.
As an innovation leader, your job — first and foremost — is to make progress.
As an innovation leader, your job, first and foremost, is to make progress. That means helping your organization expand its impact by better understanding and serving its customers and launching better products and services that people value. Making progress on innovation by embracing the principles outlined herein will not only build credibility for you and your team, it will lead to more support and resources — continuing the cycle of progress.
Ryan Jacoby is the author of Making Progress: The 7 Responsibilities of the Innovation Leader (Sense & Respond Press, 2017, www.senseandrespondpress.com), from which this article is excerpted. He is the founder of MACHINE, a strategy and innovation company based in Brooklyn. Previously, he ran IDEO’S New York City office and built its Business Design discipline.