With the right people, process, structure and mindset - innovation teams flourish.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Together Everyone Achieves More. If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself…

As clichéd as these kinds of quotes may be, they all point to an undeniable truth: working together helps us achieve more. Nowhere is this more important than innovation, where great things rarely happen without a group of focused, talented people coming together to experiment with new ideas.

But how can we create the right conditions for these teams to succeed?

In her recent Innov8rs Learning Labs session, Helene Cahen - the founder of Fire Up Innovation Consulting and an innovation consultant, facilitator, trainer, and coach, explored five key principles for supporting and sustaining high performing innovation teams.

Helene Cahen

Innovation Strategist at Fire Up Consulting and author of Fire Up Innovation - Sparking and Sustaining Innovation Teams

1. Build The Right Team, With Diversity of Perspectives and Backgrounds

Innovation professionals broadly share a common mindset. They have to be comfortable dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty, they must be curious - with a willingness to explore and discover new things - as well as being able to work well within a team.

In spite of these shared characteristics, it’s also incredibly important for teams to be diverse. Having multiple perspectives on a problem helps teams to avoid blind spots, providing a greater variety of ideas that increase the likelihood their work will resonate with a broad audience.

When thinking about their diversity, teams should consider:

  • Diversity of life experience such as race, gender, sexual orientation and background
  • Diversity of jobs and roles on the team
  • Diversity in terms of how people think and solve problems

This last point - diversity of thinking - can be difficult to manage as it throws up practical challenges for teams to navigate throughout their work.

This is because our thinking styles lead us to focus on different elements of the problem solving process. Some of us might have a natural preference for clarifying the problem - asking lots of questions. Some might prefer to spend time on ideation, while others are keen to get going with developing and implementing a solution.

This can cause frustrations when people with different thinking styles work together. A team member asking lots of questions about the problem, for example, is likely to irritate someone who just wants to begin solving it. However, being aware of these preferences enables teams to use them positively, being more intentional in their process and better recognizing the unique contribution of each team member.

It’s therefore valuable for teams to invest in tools and exercises to discover their individual and collective preferences, to understand their team dynamics and collaborate more effectively. If the team knows that as a whole it has a low preference for ideation, for example, it can put processes and clear objectives in place for this phase. This will ensure enough quality ideas are generated for a successful overall innovation program.

2. Be Clear On The Process, And Have Someone To Support It

Innovation teams need a clear, shared process to follow. Ideally, they also need a facilitator to support this - someone who can focus on designing the process, facilitating group sessions and asynchronous work, and managing the logistics of getting the team from A to B. This leaves the team free to focus on contributing the content.

The facilitator:

  • May or may not be a member of the team
  • Can either be internal or external to the organization
  • Could be dedicated to the project in question or on rotation with other projects

What’s most important is for a facilitator to have specific training, and to be given enough time to create and uphold the project’s structure and process. This means sufficient time to prepare before meetings with the team, the ability to focus on managing meetings rather than having to contribute content (or at least the ability to prioritize facilitation over content here), and the opportunity to follow up with the team after each meeting with insights and next steps.

Aside from dedicated facilitators, the importance of process within innovation is demonstrated in things like decision making and voting criteria.

When ideas are evaluated, for example, everyone needs to use the same criteria to make their decision. This helps teams to be as objective as possible, preventing ideas from being selected based on what people like, instead of ones aligned with the project’s goals.

Ultimately, using a clear process and managing it well leads to better outcomes in innovation because it helps to give everybody a voice, improves collaboration and reduces conflict, and ultimately improves the efficiency of projects.

3. Know Your Users, Spend Time With Them, and Get Their Feedback

Putting users at the heart of the innovation process is essential. This enables teams to avoid internal biases and challenge their inevitable assumptions around their users’ behavior, wants and needs.

In order to do this, it’s a good idea for innovation teams to regularly spend time with their users. Consider having each team member spend a minimum of an hour a month listening to their feedback, observing what they do, or even being fully immersed in their world.

The question of who users are is important here - and it’s not just end users.

It’s more effective to think of users as everyone who is going to be impacted by an innovation.

This is likely to be a broad range of stakeholders including parties like other internal functions within the business, management, organizational partners, clients and retailers.

When innovating in a user-centered way, it’s important to give users a way to assess your concepts as early and as often as possible by providing feedback on rough prototypes. A rough prototype could be a drawing, an AI generated concept, a 3D version of a concept built from arts and crafts, a flow chart, or even a video skit of the new experience.

In the early stages having a visibly rough prototype may be beneficial and encourage honest opinions, as it doesn’t look like a lot of time or effort has been spent on a solution.

4. Be Ready To Fail

Attitudes towards failure can make or break an innovation team.

Given that 75-90% of new products fail, it’s best to start off by assuming things won’t go according to plan…

Once armed with this assumption, the question is then how to manage it.

It’s important for teams to:

  • Create the right expectations within the organization about failure, communicating to the innovation team itself and to leadership that it’s a normal and healthy part of the innovation process
  • Ensure failures are turned into learning opportunities, so any mistakes aren’t repeated next time. When your project fails, are you dedicating the time to really find out why?
  • Fail early before it is too expensive. Innovation is all about iteration, so don’t invest too much time, effort or money in a solution before you give it the chance to fail.

5. Build a Company Culture That Supports Innovation - And Knows Where To Draw The Line

Building on from the previous point and the last entry in this list is a simple question for your organization:

What happens when the team fails?

Organizations need to encourage risk taking and experimentation in their innovation teams in order for them to be successful.

If an organization is unable to embrace the failure of a project, then innovation is impossible as it prevents people from taking risks or trying anything new.

But they also need to be very clear on when to stop, if an idea isn’t working.

One of the best ways of promoting innovation within an organization is to have an innovation champion - someone who promotes the work, advocates for time and resources, and protects the team when needed. This is often most important in the early stages of a project, when leadership is more likely to seek reassurance that the work being undertaken is worthwhile.

Considering these five conditions may help you set up or manage your innovation teams better and increase your chances of success.

Like everything in innovation, it’s important to adopt a prototyping attitude, try new things and take time to debrief about what worked for your team and what to change or improve.