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Three Rules for Innovation Teams

Three Rules for Innovation Teams
Thursday March 29, 2012
by Harry West

Our business at Continuum is design and innovation (if you've used a Swiffer or pushed a new Target shopping cart, you've encountered us), so naturally we are always looking for ways to innovate how we innovate. Three refinements to our team approach are making a difference: actively managing creative friction; making project rooms the focal point of the work environment; and pushing as much creativity into commercialization as into conceptualization. Follow these rules, and you'll see a dramatic difference in your own team's ability to innovate:

1. Manage Creative Friction

The wrong type of friction on teams makes people hate each other and hold back, but the right type gets results. How do you encourage good creative friction?

Share the experience. The whole team, including the client, work together through all steps of the ideation process from consumer learning, to analysis of possibilities, to envisioning the final idea. Working with consumers directly to understand their needs and aspirations is an especially powerful bonding experience that gives the team a common sense of purpose, and creates a shared foundation of facts and feelings.

Remove communication barriers. People communicate in different ways, so we do social styles analyses to help people understand how their teammates tend to communicate. Are they a driver, amiable, expressive or analytical? They learn that it is not that Harry is necessarily overbearing, but that he tends to lead with ideas, it is not that Susan isn't on task, but she tends to consider people first. Once you understand why people are different, you can laugh about it — rather than get frustrated — and it becomes a way for the team to bond, rather than a reason for breakdown.

Have at it. Lock yourselves in the project room and engage in a passionate debate. The magic in innovation is to combine perception with analysis. Few people can do this alone, but a well-functioning team can be prolifically creative and sharply critical at the same time. The team as a whole acts like one open and self-aware brain that is creating and arguing with itself at the same time. The communication is fast and brutally honest and there is only one agenda.

2. Bring Creativity to the Center

The forum for this debate is the project room. This is a dedicated space teams use from conception to execution. Of course project rooms should be good a place to work, with natural light, plenty of space for the whole team and what they are working on, lots of pinup space for the voice of the consumer to come alive in the room, whiteboards for new ideas, and good audio and video connections to team members in other parts of the world. A well-designed space helps the team to stay focused.

But the project room should not isolate the team. It should connect it to the company as a whole: Glass doors and big internal windows enable more people to see what is going on, comment on it, add to it, and appreciate it.

And put project rooms at the center of action in the company. In many companies, project rooms are set up in the low-rent district of their buildings. I hate to admit it, but many of our project rooms at Continuum were kind of pokey, too. So we moved our executives out of their offices and turned those spaces into project rooms. Since innovation is the core of our proposition, it should be at the core of our environment, too.

Project rooms don't belong in the basement; give them some respect. Move the CEO out of his office and make that a project room.

3. Stand for Delivery

Innovation doesn't stop once you have an idea. Innovation is the creation and the delivery of new value. There is also the challenge in getting those ideas to market. At some point the ideation team has to hand off to the commercialization team which is responsible for the later stages of the innovation process: development, production, training, etc. And that handoff can go wrong. The commercialization team may not fully believe in the idea, and if their heart is not in it, nor is their mind. But more insidiously, the commercialization team may be too uncritical and launch the idea exactly as conceived. This is the biggest trap. When we look at successful innovation, yes, the product or service as launched is similar to the original idea. But it is not identical.

So design teams with this handoff in mind. Make sure that there is an extended team of stakeholders who have responsibility for the entire innovation process. And make sure there is at least one person from the commercialization team who starts off in the ideation team. They will feel ownership of the idea, and more importantly, having been part of the deliberation process in the conception phase, will be more comfortable continuing to creatively evolve the idea in the right way as it is commercialized.

Sometimes the difference between the idea and the reality is small, but as my friend Beatriz Lara, Chief Innovation Officer of BBVA likes to point out, the difference between the DNA of a chimpanzee and a human is less than 1%, but it is an important 1%.

Successful ideas are not born in secret: they emerge from open and vigorous dialog around new information, and then they are actively pulled into the market by a commercialization team rather than being pushed by an ideation team. In the intensity of the innovation process, it's easy to divide into a world of "us" and "them." But to innovate well, teams must be permeable, inviting the outside in and engaging the broader community to transform an idea on a napkin into a new product or service in the marketplace.

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