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9 Tips to Establish Innovation Teams

Innovation is an important and valuable concept. In the last 15 years especially, there has been much talk around innovation and its impact on various aspect of life, yet it is not clear what it actually means in our own context of operations.

Many people write about it and talk about it and give their own perspective on what they think innovation means. And thanks to their efforts, more people now have a better idea of what it really means, where it can be applied, how it can be applied and what the value preposition is.

In an effort to contribute to the growing knowledge and opinion base on innovation, here are some thoughts and learnings that I've collected over the last several years.

1. Organizational DNA

Innovation is neither a project nor a process. Innovation is all about thought process and mindset. In order to be successful with innovation, it needs to be part of your organizational DNA.

Organization doesn’t have to mean the entire company. It can be your group or team (and a team can be as small as three people), but it needs to have people who think differently, who are willing to try new concepts and question existing ones, who are willing to learn and not ashamed of stealing concepts from real life and willing to give it a try in their field of work without fear of failure.

Thinking of this organizational DNA determines the probability of success for your group's innovation efforts.

2. Collaboration is important

Successful and sustaining innovation requires people to work together in a collaborative environment, where they can lean on each other, learn from each other and openly share ideas and thoughts with each other.

Often, an individual will come up with an idea and believe it to be great. However, it needs go through an ideation process where a group of people come together, listen to the idea and evaluate it as a group. If the idea is really great, other members of the group will add their input to develop it further, and this will substantially increase the possibility of turning the idea into a successful product or service.

In many cases, team members will be able to help the idea owner identify weak or broken parts of the idea. As a result, either the team will decide to mitigate the weakness of those parts or will drop those aspects of the idea.

3. Find zoom out team members

One of the most important things to consider is to how to build an innovation team. This decision will not only determine how successful innovative products or services will be, it will determine the sustainability of these products with respect to future improvements and introduction of new products and services.

It is critical to a build a team of individuals who represent the same theme but are capable of representing different point of views.

For example, an innovation team that consists of a group of bright technologists will not go far. A team requires additional people who can think beyond technology, people who can think of current processes and problems with those processes and people who understand the behavioral aspects of potential users. And it's important to include people who can see a bigger picture with respect to not only problems solved or opportunities created by the job in hand, but also other pain points and opportunities that may exist within the market landscape and how those can be solved.

Market landscape here could also be your organization that you work for or a functional business unit you serve.

Most of the time, team members who move past an ideation process to the incubation phase of the innovation effort are so laser focused on their idea and what is needed to make the idea successful that they are not able to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. It is important to have team members who have the desire, capability and bandwidth to do just that.

4. Innovation teams and performance engines

As we think about establishing an innovation culture within the organization, one important question is "What does this innovation team look like?" Should we provide some innovation opportunities to existing teams that are building systems, managing systems and operating systems? Should we have a dedicated innovation team? Should we find a hybrid model that consists of individuals from both sides of the world?

Teams that are focused on day-to-day tasks – whether executing new technology projects, marketing products or identifying new markets – are extremely important for the success of the business.

I fondly call these teams “performance engines”. Their job is to make sure they continue performing.

Oftentimes, performance teams do not first view innovators with a great deal of respect. They might consider innovation team members as research focused with no real accountability to deliver. This perspective is natural and understandable as a performance team and innovation team is different in nature.

But it is important to recognize that everything a performance team executes on today was an innovation at some point. At the same time, it is equally important to recognize that innovation is required to help a performance team do their job better, solve their pain points and explore new opportunities. And performance teams, in most cases and in most configurations, are paying for innovation teams.

The broader point is that we require dedicated innovation teams, but we also need strong partnership with performance teams. These partnerships may be hard to establish at the start and could be difficult to manage but at the end, yet this is the way to make innovation successful. Giving up on partnering with performance teams on innovation efforts would almost guarantee failure.

5. A crazy man's idea

Every product and service that we use on a day-to-day basis at work and in personal life was innovated at a time in the past. Long before these products were engineered and designed, someone came up with a wild idea that was eventually transformed to a product.

Frequently, individuals who came up with these ideas were ridiculed, discouraged and called crazy. I’m sure a lot of them were disheartened and did not pursue the idea fully. Luckily, some of them were stubborn enough to ignore other people, believe in themselves and continue pursuing the idea.

Often, innovation starts as a crazy man’s idea. It is extremely important to create an environment within the organization where ideas can be nurtured and team members are encouraged to dream about things that do not exist.

People should be comfortable enough to share their crazy dreams with each other and rejection must not be used as a way to discourage people.

It is not unusual to see actual innovation occurring several levels below leadership, and this will happen only if people are operating in an environment where the ability to dream is appreciated.

Nurturing and sharing ideas without fear is one of the most important factors with respect to creating an innovation culture in an organization.

6. Glocalization and reverse innovation

In the past, several products and services were innovated and designed in the western world and then sent to emerging markets for sale. Some changes were made in these products to adopt to local conditions, but products were largely the same. This is the long-time prevailing wisdom referred to as glocalization.

More recently, companies such as GE are doing the opposite. GE decided to launch – in the U.S. – a $1000 ECG machine that was custom designed for rural India and a low-cost ultra-sound machine that was designed for rural China. The launch of the two devices will further strengthen the case of decentralizing medical care from hospitals to home.

This is a great example of “reverse innovation” where innovation is done for a specific user base for a specific market condition and reconfigured to be used by a much larger user base for multiple types of market conditions.

Innovation teams within organizations can benefit from this notion. They should be open to seek out what has been done as a project for a specific use case then reconfigured it as a product or service for a larger user base within the organization.

7. Innovation catalysts and champions

As leadership initiates innovation efforts, it needs to understand clearly how to get conversations started, how to expedite the process and how to get enough support from stakeholders and users. Innovation requires rock solid partnerships across an organization.

One of the ways to do this – and most effective way, in my view – is to look for innovation catalysts that will become part of a dedicated team and then find innovation champions within existing and potential user communities to work with catalysts to solidify the innovation-based culture thinking within the organization.

Innovation catalysts should be found within the entire organization. These individuals may come from central technology teams, business unit specific technology teams or other places. These individuals will become part of a dedicated innovation team and work on ideation, incubation, design and engineering of products and services.

Innovation champions are your advocates within functional units or user communities. They understand the value of innovation and educate other people about it. They are your key opinion leaders who can take your message and deliver it to the right people in the right way.

Champions also get feedback from the user base and relay it back to the innovation team. They are extremely important to ensure that innovation efforts are adding value and that value is being captured. They are also integral in establishing an innovation culture within the organization.

8. Don't worry, be crappy

Guy Kawasaki once famously said, “Don’t worry, be crappy.” He was not advocating innovators to produce shoddy products; instead, he made a point that when you do something that is not intended on making small improvements but is intended on doing something radically different and better, we should not wait for the perfect version.

When organizations begin innovation efforts, sometimes they are scared of failures. They also worry about delivering something that may not meet a user’s expectations.

I believe it's important to deliver products and service quickly and without fear of failure. If it does something that was not done within your organization before, or if it does something drastically better than what was done before, then presenting a new way of doing things will be appreciated.

We must educate potential users that a product is in incubation. There may be some rough edges, but we must not stop, stall or slow down because of fear of failure. We must not wait for a perfect version.

There is only one way to get the perfect version of the product, and that is allowing actual users to use it.

I have heard this argument over and over again that users will not understand when a product is in incubation, and some small bugs will kill the product.

Trust me, user do understand this. Within the context of technology and IT, I think users deserve more credit than we give them. They all use Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft’s products that are launched as incubation or beta products.

What is important is to engage with them early, set the right level of expectations and create a positive feedback loop that will not only make your product better but will also increase your credibility with respect to establishing an innovation culture.

9. Don’t just focus on problems

It is absolutely important to focus on existing problems that users face and solve them with ideas and solutions. Innovation teams should make it a priority to do some “pain storming,” prioritize and innovate to solve those problems. Once some are solved, you have proven the value of innovation within the organization.

These quick wins and credibility boosters with your users must be used by innovation teams to expand their focus and work towards identification of opportunities for users that did not exist before.

Yet, innovation teams must not focus solely on solving problems. They must also focus on creating new opportunities and disrupting current ways of doing things in a positive manner.

In conclusion, I like to say that innovating can be difficult. Establishing an innovation-driven culture within an organization is challening, but it worth the effort. Innovation is the key if you want to help your company move beyond the next level and to the next curve of the cycle.

Article written by Manoj Vig
Image credit by Getty Images, Caiaimage, Tom Merton
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