Seven Fundamentals of a Winning Innovation Team

Robert Tucker
March 06, 2017

Robert Tucker

Driving Growth Through Innovation

Sooner or later, you’re going to be asked to lead an innovation team. This will be your time to shine, if you’re up to the challenge. The distinguishing aspect of leading a special purpose team is that you’re not in control, you can only influence behavior. You’re tasked with figuring out how to do something new, so you and your mates are going on a learning journey. So what you do in the formative stages will greatly impact the team’s chances of success. Follow these seven suggestions to guide your success:

1. Keep team size small, even for big projects. In Silicon Valley, the “pizza rule” has taken hold. If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, your team is too big. Lots of research supports this notion. Once a group gets beyond five to seven people, productivity and effectiveness begin to decline. Communication becomes cumbersome. Managing becomes a pain. Players begin to disengage, and introverts withdraw. When it comes to team size, less is more.

2. Pay attention to group chemistry and emotions. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon point to three factors that make a team highly functioning. 1) Members contributed equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate; 2) Members were better at reading complex emotional states; and 3) Teams with more women outperform teams with more men. The emotional component – how we feel when we are engaged with a team – truly matters but is all too often never discussed. Pay attention to how the people you’re inviting onto your team relate to others. Assess human factors like trust, empathy, ability to resolve conflict, and seek and offer forgiveness. Acknowledge people’s selfless behavior and achievements. Always give credit to your team rather than take credit yourself, and practice empathy at all times.

3. Calculate people’s Teamwork Factor. Will Wright, developer of The Sims, Spore and other best-selling computer games, analyzes what he calls a person’s teamwork factor. “There is a matter of, how good is this person times their teamwork factor,” Wright told interviewer Adam Bryant. “You can have a great person who doesn’t really work well on the team, and they’re a net loss. You can have somebody who is not that great but they are really very good glue, and [they] could be a net gain.” Team members Wright considers “glue,” share information effectively, motivate and improve morale, and help out when somebody gets stuck. Be aware of not only the needed skill sets, but who works well together and who does not.

4. Don’t go overboard with diversity. Can too much diversity be a detriment to team chemistry? Researchers at Wharton think so. Too much diversity of “mental models” can be a drag on forward progress, say professors Klein and Lim. If members of a team have a “shared, organized understanding and mental representation of knowledge” about the nature of the challenge, it can enhance coordination and effectiveness when the task at hand is complex, unpredictable, urgent and novel. The researchers concluded that team member who share common models can save time because they share a common body of knowledge.

5. Establish a group process. Nancy Tennant, who led an amazingly successful innovation initiative at Whirlpool some years ago, once told me about joining an ad hoc governmental team tasked with solving a very big problem. “They brought a group of people together from all over the world to help them brainstorm. They spent a lot of money, put us in a room and said ‘think hard.’ But we didn’t know each other. We didn’t have a group process. And we just couldn’t do it.” A group without a process is like a ship without a rudder. It will have a harder time innovating. Establish team rules at the outset. Address how you’ll treat each other, how you’ll respect each other, and articulate how much of time each member is committing to the team. Effective teams establish clear goals and rules at the outset, and hold each other accountable.

6. Pay attention to what is going on outside the team. Since your dedicated team is charged with getting something new accomplished, it is natural to think of it as the “innovation team.” But doing so leads those not part of the team wondering how the project will effect them, and whether they support or oppose the team’s challenge. You must be careful to begin building buy-in for your efforts from the very beginning. Day to day managers see innovation teams as a threat or a special case that should be ignored. Teams appointed by the CEO can be seen as the ‘CEO’s pet project’ leaving a chance for them to be condemned or subtly derailed. Team leaders and members must spend as much time working in the external environment as working in their team. Be sure to build trust and open communication with the rest of the organization.

7. Pay attention to the 3Rs of innovation: Result, Reputation, and Residuals. What motivates people over the long haul is not money, but intrinsic rewards.  Harvard’s Teresa Amabile’s research shows that feelings of accomplishment, that we are making progress, doing important work are the biggest motivators.  As the team leader, keep the three Rs in mind: 1) Result. If you hit your target, you’ll have another accomplishment on your track record; 2) Reputation: your status in the organization rises. Senior management will be delighted. Colleagues will talk you up, praise your contribution, and invite you to join future projects. 3) Residuals: the lasting payout of participating in a successful collaborative team is that you get to see your “product” being used by customers, both internal and external. You know you’ve made a difference, solved a problem, or created an opportunity for the organization, your team, and most of all yourself.

Robert Tucker

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