I am not a big fan of rules. I suppose it’s because my mother had a lot of rules while I was growing up. Some of them, in retrospect, were to help keep the house clean and running efficiently. But some of her rules made no sense at all – even when I view them as a responsible adult. For instance, not getting dirty when playing outside is a very difficult rule – and I still don’t manage to not get dirty when I go hiking or biking!
Yet, when we get together in groups to do work, we need guidelines and principles to direct our behaviors. Working teams need boundaries and guardrails to make decisions, resolve conflict, and assign responsibility. Our team “rules” provide these working agreements and effective guiding principles to generate efficient collaboration.
Rule #1 – Conflict Resolution
Any time when two or more people get together, there will be conflict. Conflict within innovation teams is usually related to differences of opinion, alternate technical solutions, or varied approaches to problem-solving. In these situations, team members and team leaders should openly identify the issue and seek the best solution. For new product development (NPD), the “best solution” is the one that adds value to the project and increases value for the customer or end-user.
Team leaders should be familiar with the Thomas-Kilmann conflict resolution model. We won’t go into detail in this post, as you can read more about conflict resolution model here and in The Innovation ANSWER Book (Chapter 4). Note that every conflict or issue is not the same, so the approach to resolving it should not be the same.
In some instances, we will seek consensus using all the team members’ opinions and letting everyone have a voice at the table. In other instances, the best decisions are made between team members on their own (the “avoiding” response by the leader). And finally, in other situations, the team leader should manage decision-making and conflict through alternate means – sometimes involving multiple team members (“accommodating”) and sometimes giving direction (“competing”). Each conflict is unique and the leader must align an appropriate technique to resolve the issue with the complexity of the conflict, relevance to achieving project goals, and team member personalities.
Rule #2 – Everyone’s Voice is Heard
Effective, collaborative innovation teams ensure that everyone on the team has an opportunity to share his or her viewpoint. Everyone should get a chance to contribute to decisions that impact the final product design. Nevertheless, team members must understand – upfront – that voicing an opinion does not necessarily mean you get your way. Sharing opinions, instead, is used to evaluate the pros and cons of each decision.
For especially critical decisions (such as feature selection for a new product), team leaders should poll each individual, summarize the separate cases, and take a vote. With such a democratic process, team members can buy into the decision and support the outcomes of it. Without an opportunity to share their opinion, and to critique alternatives, people might fail to offer 100% support for the decision.
Rule #3 – Shared Workspaces
Creative teams need shared workspaces to effectively collaborate. Without a “safe space” to debate and share ideas, frustration arises as barriers prevent the free flow of information. In-person teams can set up a “war room” as a central location for innovation team files, meetings, and activities. Using visual tools like a Kanban board, can ground the team in shared outcomes.
The shared space should include movable desks, tables, and chairs; lots of whiteboards and markers; sticky notes and blank paper; and a wide variety of colored pens and pencils. Other tools, such as tape, glue, and scissors can help the team in brainstorming creative ideas. (Read more about creative workspaces in Part 3 of Creativity in the Back-End of Innovation, available as a Kindle download.)
Remote teams should also have a shared space. Microsoft Teams channels are popular for communicating and file storage (but terrible for file editing). I use online whiteboards (like Mural and Miro) for an electronic shared workspace. Team members can move around sticky notes, add images, and link to files. Online whiteboards are accessed during collaborative group meetings and are also available for individual contributions offline. They are as close to the “real thing” as possible and facilitate intra-team communications.
Some Rules for Innovation Teams
Product development involves technology, market, and people risk. (Read last week’s post here about risk in NPD.) On the people side, we can improve product and project outcomes by enhancing team collaborations. A few guidelines – or rules – for creative teams provide guardrails for interactions.
First, understand how to manage conflict. Debate of alternatives is common and expected for creative groups. Use the right level of decision-making coupled to the complexity of the issue. Next, make sure everyone on the team has an opportunity to contribute. While each opinion will vary, you can combine the best pieces of each person’s contribution to build a better, overall solution. When we feel like our voice has been heard, we are more likely to accept the conclusion. Finally, create in-person and virtual shared spaces for working teams. Provide the tools needed by a creative end dot team and ensure easy access.
What rules do you use for managing product teams?
If you want to learn more about setting up teams for self-awareness and collaboration, please join me on 21 September 2022 with the PDMA Minnesota Chapter. Learn more here and check out my speaking schedule here.
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