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Teaming to Innovate versus Execute is Business as UNusual | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
October 6, 2017
Photo of TLI Gemini Chair Kirk Froggatt addressing attendees at the October 4 Technically Speaking event

Our Technically Speaking workshop on October 4 was well attended by a diverse mix of 60+, highly-engaged corporate innovators. Our objectives were to foster new network connections and tap the wisdom of the crowd to share best practices for leading innovation teams.

We began by framing three central challenges innovators/intrapreneurs face within corporate cultures:

  1. The dual transformation challenge: We have to simultaneously reposition the core business through incremental innovation and deploy breakthrough or disruptive innovation to create tomorrow’s growth engine.
  2. The ambidexterity challenge: To be effective at executing as planned in the short-term as well as innovating to build the next generation growth engine, we have to master the “genius of" and get good at both incremental and breakthrough innovation, delivery and discovery skills, and disciplined operational processes and agile, experimental processes.
  3. The cultural challenge: Past success causes our mindset, beliefs, processes and business models to “harden” and become very resistant to change. Introducing new innovations requires us to both develop a viable business model and carefully navigate the politics and emotions of change. As Peter Drucker said so well, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

In this context, we introduced four key success factors innovation leaders need to master to optimize success:

  1. Aim high and measure what matters.
  2. Engage the right talent.
  3. Apply the right processes and tools.
  4. Create the conditions for success—a “learning zone” culture to support smart risk-taking, learning and adapting.

The audience participated in an online poll to select success factors #1 and #4 as topics for further discussion. During small and large group discussions, several common themes emerged and a number of interesting best practices were shared:

Theme 1: Metrics matter! The “explore” phase of innovation is fraught with uncertainty and requires iterative experimentation. Therefore, metrics should monitor how well we learn and adapt as we run experiments to achieve key design milestones, key customer feedback wins, and develop a viable business model. Best practices:

  • OMTM (One Metric that Matters). For each sprint (week, experiment or milestone), chose one metric that matters and align the team around it.
  • Set outcome, learning and team process metrics for each experiment based on your central hypothesis (“We expect X outcome. We want to learn Y in the process. We need to do Z differently as a team in this sprint.”)
  • Build a shared understanding of your metrics with key stakeholders so they support rather than resist or reject your approach/results.

Theme 2: Culture matters! Innovation leaders need to create a learning culture that supports and encourages personal risk-taking, iterative experimentation and learning. Best practices:

  • Establish team norms/ground rules that foster psychological safety and encourage everyone to speak up, take personal risk and build on rather than criticize others’ ideas.
  • Manage equal airtime for all rather than deferring to a few dominant voices (Google found this to be a reliable predictor of high performing teams).
  • Challenge and debate ideas, don’t criticize people.
  • Make learning an explicit and valued outcome. Practice After Action Reviews, “Pause and Reflect” conversations (“That didn’t work, so what did we learn? How will we adapt going forward?”) and “5WHYs” to get to root causes and key insights.

Theme 3: Leadership matters! We need to be a source of inspiration and support for experimentation and smart risk-taking and architect the conditions and culture for team success during the iterative and messy “explore” phase of innovation. Best practices:

  • Inspire others with a compelling, bold “triple play” vision (win for customers + win for the business + win for our team).
  • Communicate WHY, HOW and WHAT early and often (develop a rhythm to keep the team informed, learning and inspired together).
  • Don’t be a HIPPO in the room (highest paid person who does all the talking). Listen actively and deeply. Ask good questions that foster insight, learning and alignment.
  • Practice the 5-second pause to reflect and respond rather than REACT to ideas.
  • Practice WOW! versus How?: Avoid judging too soon by reacting immediately with “how?” questions. Encourage more discussion/exploration by acknowledging ideas with “Wow!”

So what’s the bottom line? High-performance innovation teaming happens by DESIGN, not by default. We hope everyone left the workshop with a few new ideas and practices to help YOU become a better innovation leader.

About the Author

Photo of Kirk Froggatt

Kirk Froggatt

  • Gemini Chair
  • Senior Fellow

Gemini Chair in Technology Management

With a wealth of research and industry experience—Hewlett Packard, Yahoo!, and Agilent Technologies, just to name a few—Kirk Froggatt develops and teaches courses in business, innovation fundamentals, and leadership for TLI’s graduate programs. He also develops and delivers custom leadership and organization development programs for technical professionals and organizations seeking to improve their performance and results, and offers courses and seminars to undergraduates to introduce them to the business context for their work in science and technology.

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