Innovation occurs when technology and market knowledge successfully collide to create a new product or service that is in demand by customers. Successful innovation involves a profit for the manufacturer and a useful convenience for the consumer. Over time, needs change as technologies advance and customers seek new solutions to emerging problems.
Thus, innovation is an ever-changing game. Even in the oldest industries with stable demand, innovation is necessary to maintain a competitive position. We must continuously study customer needs and wants. At the same time, we stride toward advanced technologies with lower unit costs to sustain profit margins. Innovation is a tricky business.
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Because innovation of new products and services is inherently risky and because the activities cross functional boundaries, we use teams to do the work of innovation. Teams allow a company to access a greater depth and breadth of skills, increase creativity, and shorten the design cycle. Most people prefer working with others on a team that raises each individual to a higher level of contribution. Project work is more fun with a team.
Of course, innovation teams are different than standard functional teams. In a traditional work group, team members share a similar background and have significant overlap in skills, background, and education. On an innovation team, each team member brings unique and varied skills to the project. Degrees and experiences cover a wide spectrum from people-oriented market research to the advanced math and chemistry skills of the technical-oriented contributors.
It is because team members use different jargon, work at different paces, and focus on different aspects of the product development process that innovation teams require special management tools. In this article, you will learn how to manage an innovation team in three easy steps: lead, let, and love.
People often conflate leadership with management. While managers have designated titles, they are usually concerned about resource usage – maintaining costs below a given threshold, ensuring project budgets do not exceed appropriations, and so on. Leaders, on the other hand, are driven by organizational purpose and concentrate their energy on building teams and systems to achieve project goals. Leaders do not always have a title but are recognized throughout a firm for their ability to guide and direct teams and individuals to create actionable results.
Lead by Example
Innovation leaders lead by example. We know that successful innovation occurs when we understand customer needs before going to the lab to design and develop a product. Innovation leaders visit customers, observe them using products, and interact with consumers to build deep market insights. This means getting in the field. Innovation leaders do not sit behind their desks guessing what customers need or prophesying future technologies.
Innovation leaders also demonstrate the behaviors of integrity, ethics, and action required of their team members. They build trust by being trustworthy. And, because we understand that innovation follows a zigzag pathway with new discoveries, innovation leaders are patient, steady, and accepting of change.
A second differentiation between managers and leaders is that managers are assigned followers, but followers choose a leader. Servant leadership is a term that encompasses the principles of helping others before helping yourself. Innovation leaders that determine the team’s needs alongside those of the customers are servant leaders. A servant leader asks how to promote the ideas and strengths of his or her team members.
I have worked with classical managers in my career. These people take credit for the actions of their team. They give presentations to senior management and pat themselves on the back for group successes. One manager, named Gary, was famous for taking credit for the work of his direct reports. It became such an issue that Gary’s team members were “slow-walking” their project work, hoping he would be replaced soon.
In contrast, my favorite manager, Mal, gave me a wide scope of work along with the guidance that doing something was always better than doing nothing. With a broad idea of what he hoped a project would accomplish, I was free to tackle the problem with my unique set of skills. If I ran into a question or challenge, he would offer a set of directions but never tell me what he expected as an answer. He invited me to present results to senior management and executives at headquarters. And he always recognized the individual team members who contributed to a project. Unlike Gary, Mal served as an example of servant leadership.
Letting people do what they know how to do, applying their strengths and wisdom to a problem, is a further example of servant leadership and is a best practice to manage an innovation team. As an analogy, children must experience the difference between hot and cold before you let them in the kitchen to use the stove. We only let people have experiences that we think they can adequately handle.
Failure is Learning
A key concept in lean innovation is failure. In Lean New Product Development, specifications and requirements are not frozen until the latest possible moment. The reason is that as the team continues to investigate customer needs and tests prototypes, learning will enhance the product design. Hand-in-hand with learning, is failure. You cannot know what works, without also finding out what doesn’t work.
Until recently, American society was against the idea of failure. Individual success is important, and we always congratulate the winner. However, every winner has a few losses behind them. Fast failure in innovation is increasingly important as technology developments move at a faster pace than ever. Will a customer want a new smartphone app for a product or is a wearable the better answer? These questions require the innovation team to interact with a wide variety of customers and to continually test and revise designs. Failures are programmed and treated as learning events in teams most successful with innovation.
Take Measured Risks
Letting failure happen for learning is coupled with accepting risk. No one alive today is living risk-free. However, a company does not want to lose money in developing new products, so the firm sets a level of risk tolerance aligned to strategic goals. Some firms are risk-tolerant (prospector) and give innovation teams more leeway to test new technologies, markets, and product features. Other companies are risk-averse and will develop new products only within their known sphere of influence (defender).
In either case, innovation has risk because innovation means something new. The level of acceptable risk is different but both firms know that to maintain customer satisfaction and market share, innovation requires risk. In both cases, innovation teams plan and test their hypotheses regarding customer needs, market growth rates, and pricing strategies. Jumping headfirst into a product development effort guarantees failure, but taking a measured risk allows the team to learn, adjust, and prioritize features for successful innovation.
So, you are probably wondering what love has to do with managing successful innovation teams. We typically think about love as a romantic relationship or how we feel about close family. Love is also a way to show respect for our co-workers. As innovation leaders, we love our team members enough to give them autonomy and we care about their continued development.
Give the Team Autonomy
Most employees crave autonomy more than almost any other offering a company can make to them. Employers who hire smart, creative individuals should not hamper their contributions by forcing restrictive rules, behaviors, and punishments. Have you ever heard someone complain that they don’t attend enough meetings?
You have assembled an amazing cross-functional innovation team! Give the team the authority to make their own decisions. Set up guardrails and boundaries for these decisions but let them take the risks they see necessary to meet customer needs and to develop new products. Leaders provide guidance and governance for team actions and you must allow the team members to do the work they know how to do best.
Facilitate Learning and Education
Innovation moves fast. Some say we are moving at a faster pace than ever due to technological advances and the “shrinking” of the world through cloud computing, automation, and social media. A college degree teaches the methodology of how to approach a problem. Once I started working, I rarely used anything more than plus, minus, multiply, and divide on my calculator. But my engineering education taught me troubleshooting skills, how to evaluate alternatives, and basic common sense.
As an innovation leader, you can love your team members by supporting their continued learning and education. You want them to succeed and grow their skills for their own benefit as well as to contribute to the organization’s creativity. As your team members learn new skills, they will build improvements to products, features, and systems. Education can never stop if you are going to succeed with product and service development!
Lead, Let, and Love
Product innovation is risky business and there are no guarantees. We hope to satisfy customer needs when we combine technologies and product features. Our rate of success goes up exponentially if we use cross-functional teams with varied skills and problem-solving approaches. We win when we manage our innovation teams by leading them, letting them be, and loving them.
Your Action Steps
Your action steps are easy. Lead by example and be a servant leader. Accept that failure is learning in innovation and take measured risks. Give your team autonomy and facilitate continuous learning. To learn more about managing innovation projects, best practices, and tips and tools for New Product Development Professionals in our upcoming, online course. You will be prepared to sit for the NPDP Certification exam, but more importantly, you will learn how to succeed as an innovation leader! Click here for more info on the October course (online, Thursdays) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I am inspired by writing, teaching, and speaking at great professional events. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at email@example.com or area code 281 + phone 787-3979 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.