Everyone seems to have their own definition of innovation. The way that I explain innovation is “the creation of a new product, service, program, or application that may or may not use new technology, serves a marketplace, and for which customers are willing to purchase to access its value.” There are a lot of keywords in this translation, but the most important one is value. Consumers do not exchange their hard-earned money unless they will gain from the purchase.
We also spend a lot of time talking, writing, and studying how to improve innovation processes. Literally, billions of words have been written on new product development (NPD) systems, marketing programs, and technology advances that will help a firm become successful innovators. Effective systems and processes are crucial to success and I love to help clients design and implement NPD improvement programs. However, the heart of innovation is people. Building the right team with the right balance of skills it is what leads to creative and innovative success.
First, we know that we must structure NPD teams to match the scope and scale of the project. We use functional workgroups when the innovation requires depth of knowledge. Lightweight teams are good for incremental improvements in a product or service, like a new model Toyota Camry built on a standard platform with a pre-determined chassis, engine, and transmission. Heavyweight teams involve large numbers of people, working across functional boundaries, addressing a new technology or a new market. There is more risk in these innovations so we ensure each discipline is represented and we look for both depth and breadth of expertise.
Finally, when a company is taking on the highest risk product development projects – brand new technology, creating a new market, and validating a new business model – it is best to use an autonomous team. These venture teams are segregated away from day-to-day operations, and have full responsibility and authority to accomplish a grand innovation goal. You can read more about the best practice organizational structures for innovation teams in my book (soon to be revised), the 24-Hour NPDP Study Guide.
Regardless of the structure of the team, there are four types of people you need to be successful with innovation. These are the creators, advancers, executors, and refiners.
Creators focus on possibilities. They are “idea people”. They thrive when there is little structure in a meeting and enjoy abstract thinking. You need creators on an innovation team to help explore all opportunities and their ideas, especially at the beginning of a project, can help the team identify unique and novel approaches to solving customer problems.
Every team needs someone to promote the value of their ideas to outsiders, including senior management, suppliers, vendors, and customers. Innovation teams often have to “sell” their new concepts to the operations and sales functions. Advancers are perfect for this task. They are great at building relationships and enjoy talking about the project. Their excitement is contagious and can help to build a market during the concept development and prototyping stages of an NPD effort.
In the early- to mid-stages of a project, ideas must be translated into actionable concepts. Refiners are analytical and logical. They balance the divergent thinking of a creator with convergent thinking to narrow the problem definition. Refiners are logical and very good at testing theories. Their work offers data to support the promotions of the advancers. Use refiners in your innovation teams to ensure accurate understanding of customer needs and to clarify the project scope.
Executors are almost the exact opposite of creators. They focus on the realities of a project. Executors are great at laying out the details of a project – scope, schedule, and budget. They pay close attention to details and quality. If you said you were going to do something, the executor will ensure it gets done and done with excellence. Innovation teams need executors to balance the grand ideas of creators and to ensure there is a practical outcome to the team’s work. They serve very well near the end of an NPD project in putting together specifications to get a product to market in time.
The Four Team Styles
As you assemble and integrate innovation teams, you need to not only consider the structure of the team but also the work styles of your team members. Team structure is determined by the risk of the NPD project itself. Yet, every innovation team needs four different viewpoints to be successful. Creators generate ideas but are weak on action and decisions. Advancers promote those ideas to others yet struggle with healthy pessimism and lengthy analysis. Refiners sort and categorize data to generate actionable plans but often faced difficulties in communicating their vision. And as projects need detail-oriented people to do the work, executors are all action but have little patience for divergent thinking.
Is Your Team Ready?
Does your innovation team have the right structure? Do you frequently encounter personality conflicts and miss deadlines? Learning if your team has the four people necessary for innovation addresses the most crucial dimension of a successful NPD project. Contact me at 281.280.8717 or firstname.lastname@example.org to complete a team structure/team dimension assessment. My goal is in defining innovation leadership for your success.
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