Innovation initiatives in organizations always start with good intentions.
As a leader, you’re energized and motivated by the potential of a new way of thinking and how it can transform your business.
But then you try to start an innovation team, and suddenly, the wheels come off.
“I would love to, but I am slammed this month. Can we circle back next quarter?’
“Oh, that sounds great! But I have a ton of deadlines at the moment. Count me in next time!”
“What an awesome initiative! But I’ve already joined a number of other committees within the business.”
And the list goes on.
The truth is, we’re all busy. Too busy, in fact. And when you’re trying to get an innovation team off the ground, managing how busy your team members are can seem like an insurmountable task.
The challenge of building an innovation team
In my own business, I have experience working with leaders who are building innovation teams. And, because of my role as an Advisor to the Conference Board of Canada’s Council of Innovation and Commercialization and my membership in the Innov8rs network, I’m often asked to act as a sounding board for executives who find themselves struggling through the team launch process.
So it wasn’t surprising when the Innov8rs team asked me if I could help another member get some clarity on a challenge he was facing.
Here’s what he said:
"I've been trying to start an Innovation Team in my company for over a year. Finding the "talent" was easy, as our company is full of qualified employees, but coordinating schedules was the biggest challenge. We are all busy working on projects with deadlines, so innovation keeps getting pushed for another day. What can you suggest to combat this?"
The not-so-secret solution to starting an innovation team
My colleague is not alone here. Getting people together, getting them to focus on a single goal and doing so with momentum and enthusiasm is a definite challenge. And when the team isn’t fully dedicated to your innovation project, they will feel the pinch of competing priorities.
It’s important to assess the situation at hand and the complexity you’re navigating in order to get momentum and move on to the rewarding work.
First, make sure you’ve got answers to the questions that set the context for your team. No one’s interested in playing a game when they don’t know the rules or what success looks like.
Having clarity on the answers to these questions will give your team the momentum you need to help your team move forward.
And second, lead your team to success by setting an example of how to keep moving forward, despite constraints. Innovation is messy. You need flexibility, creativity and resilience to keep moving forward. No one wants to follow innovation leaders who lack the resilience and resourcefulness to push through obstacles and manage constraints.
I've guided many leaders through this team initiation process. When it isn't coming together easily, like in the scenario described above, I find there are a number of questions that first need to be addressed.
1. Who’s on your team? How big is it, and where are they located?
How far along are you in forming your team? Are you in a work-from-home situation? Is your team distributed globally or co-located in one spot? Are they in the same time zones or spread out across different ones? Will you be doing synchronous or asynchronous work, or both?.
If you’re in the initial stages of coming together, you can't expect high-performance outcomes when you're forming and storming your way through questions like, "What are we doing here? and, "How are we going to do it?"
It’s important to remember here that the main function of any team is to solve problems to advance your organization’s goals. Remember, innovation is messy - and it involves a lot of collaborative problem-solving. But most teams form without a process for problem-solving and decision-making, which will eventually cause you a lot of problems because teams who don’t have a process to follow have difficulty achieving their goals.
Formation Tip: Create a contract with team members around availability for work and how you will work together. Make sure you give them a framework for innovation that includes a process for collaborative problem-solving.
2. Where are you in setting priorities for innovation?
What is the purpose of innovation in this context? What is the outcome you are responsible for achieving? Is there clarity on that across the team? Across the business?
Formation Tip: Develop an innovation strategy or brief to address the who, what, where, when, why, and how questions that shape your innovation work and your vision for your team. If you don’t have that to share, your team has no parameters around which to plan their commitment to you.
3. Does your team understand their role(s) and how they'll contribute to innovation?
Who is your team doing this innovation work for? You? Or someone you report to? Or are you a rogue group trying to stir things up and see where it leads? Have clear goals and objectives been set out?
Formation Tip: Add this detail to your innovation strategy or brief
4. What's your authority with the team?
Are they your exclusive and direct reports, or are they reporting to someone else who is pulling them in a different direction?
Formation Tip: Be clear on roles and responsibilities and decision-making authority.
5. How were they chosen to be on your team?
Did they join because they are interested in innovation and volunteered? Or were they asked and required to be on the team? Where are they coming from in the organization? Where is the team situated in the organization? And how is their participation on your team funded and supported?
Formation Tip: Be clear on work context and reporting lines.
6. Is HR involved in helping you?
Being on an innovation team is a fantastic opportunity for talent and leadership development. How are your team members accountable to personal and professional development through HR initiatives?
Innovation provides many opportunities for both talent and leadership development, and by partnering with HR, you may gain access to training dollars and grants to advance your cause. And, when employees know you’re willing to invest in them, they’re more inspired to put their neck on the line for you.
Formation Tip: Partner with your Human Resources team to align participation on the innovation team to your organization’s talent or leadership development programs.
7. How will you know you are successful at innovation?
You’d be surprised how many innovation teams form without thinking about what success looks like. Innovation success can’t be measured in the same way other business outcomes are. Often success is measured in small steps of progress and the lessons learned in moving towards a greater objective. What’s your objective? What key results are you measuring? Don't overthink this and get trapped in an overly complicated "innovation measurement" story.
Establish the goalposts around what you’re doing. Think along these lines: it would be great if (this happened), and it would be awful if (that happened). Your boss, you, and your team members should have input into defining this. That's how you'll be successful.
Formation Tip: Know what success looks like
8. How risky is it to be on your innovation team?
What's the tolerance for risk and doing something new and different on your team? How comfortable are you when it comes to navigating ambiguity and working towards uncertain outcomes? What's the tension that's keeping your team from truly coming together?
What's the corporate risk tolerance, and how can you leverage that to get momentum? How will you support each other through risk-taking? Who's got your back? What are the constraints you need to work within? You and your team need to know the field you're playing on.
Formation Tip: Assess your tolerance for risk; know your limits and your champions.
When you’ve covered the most important questions to get to launch, you’ve got sufficient information to onboard your team and ensure they know what they’re signing up for.
Lead your team through launch success
Innovation is about getting into action, and it doesn’t happen without collaboration. So, as a leader, it’s important to recognize that while you are responsible for establishing the context and vision for your team, you shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers. Nor should you be the one doing all the work.
When it comes to launching your team, it’s important to involve them in the process.
Here’s a tried and true approach to launching a team, even when everyone has split
1. Call a "launch" meeting with your team
Plan it out far enough that there shouldn't be any excuses around showing up. Schedule the meeting for two hours, and get your boss there too. The purpose of the meeting: Team Launch and Priority Setting.
Then schedule a series of follow-up meetings with your team (with or without your boss) as placeholders in their calendars - two hours max for each. By doing this, you'll be making it clear that you're making time for innovation, and they should be too.
2. Share your assessment of the situation and share it with your team
This is delivered as a context-setting reality check: here's where we are, here's where we’re going, these are the gaps and issues we’re dealing with and what we need to figure out. By taking this approach, you’ll make it abundantly clear to everyone that this is a team effort and you need their support.
3. Start a dialogue on the importance of the team
At the meeting, after you've shared context and gaps, engage the team in a discussion around what's important about being on this team and what's stopping them from contributing. Add the ‘stopping us’ items to your list of gaps and issues.
The big question here for every team member to answer is whether they're willing to work with you to overcome what's stopping them.
4. Collaborate to resolve your list of gaps and issues
In your subsequent team meetings, continue to assess gaps and issues. Look for patterns and opportunities and identify quick wins and bigger steps you can take. Not everything will need to be dealt with now or in the immediate future. But there will be some things you can do to keep moving forward. Look for opportunities in what you can do between now and your next meeting.
Divide and conquer the more immediate next steps and, based on priority, agree to tackle the next issues in subsequent meetings. As you move the team through these issues, and you start to gain momentum, keep asking, “What's next?” and be sure to ask, “What did we learn?”
This will help you capture key insights and continuously improve on the work you’re doing.
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