5 Tips for Effective Team Management at the Front End of Innovation

By: Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP

What does it take to set teams up for success at the front end of innovation?  The answer is lots of things – some that are easier to control than others.  Here are 5 things that innovation leaders have well within their control that can really make a difference for front end of innovation teams.

1. Create excitement, focus and a sense of urgency.

Yes, the coalface of innovation is messy work – it’s called the fuzzy front end for a reason. The most successful leaders help their teams here when they exude three characteristics – excitement, focus and a sense of urgency. Excitement comes when leaders articulate a vision that inspires — at its best, the deeply felt connection to outcomes that matter.   Excitement generates a climate for innovation that is focused. Effective leadership creates a sense of urgency when everyone feel valued and held to a high standard of performance. When Clorox was awarded the PDMA’s Outstanding Corporate Innovator award, one of the comments made about Wayne Delker, its senior vice president and chief innovation officer, was that he generated excitement, focus and sense of urgency that was a key factor in their winning success at the fuzzy front end.

2. Provide sufficient time and mindshare for team members to do front end of innovation projects.

In terms of effectiveness and our ability to add value to front end of innovation projects, it seems that when working on two projects, we are most effective.  When working on one project, Murphy’s Law of tasks filling all the time available – whether required or not – comes into play.  When working on three projects, we are effective but less so – partly because it’s hard to get everyone to all the necessary meetings. Four or more projects and our effectiveness as a team member goes way down.  Innovation leaders can really make a difference by right-sizing the number of projects to optimize talent.

3. Enable team members’ understanding of their innovation process strengths and preferences.

There are many preference profiles available for innovation leaders to use, and these are best used after the team has been put together based on the more important diversities of function, skills/expertise, experience/age and native curiosity. The correct assumption is that within a diverse team, there is a range of personalities and different thinking preferences and creativity styles. The challenge for an innovation leader is to harness those differences for the front end of innovation. In the front-end context, the most important process understanding is that there are four foundational phases in innovation: task clarification, ideation, development and implementation. It is not a prerequisite that you have team members that have thinking styles and strengths that represent all these phases, but worthwhile finding out to reinforce the consecutive phases. What is most important is that teams don’t skip a step and that they devote the appropriate amount of time to each phase.  Engineers are often prone to what I call ‘premature enactment’ – rushing to development before fully exploring the task or ideating.

 4. Develop team members’ skills in a variety of process tools and techniques.

A shared process and toolbox provide a common language for innovation teams. Process tools, and the techniques to use them, are very important for achieving creative solutions that push the envelope, that avoid group think unproductive consensus. Innovation leaders must also ensure that team members understand and value process. Creative problem-solving works with divergent and convergent processes.

Tools and techniques for divergence include analogical thinking, SCAMPER, excursions, visualization, mind mapping, brain writing and morphological analysis. Tools for convergence include affinity sort, qualitative cluster analysis, DeBono’s Six Hats, ladder of abstraction and dot voting. The more process understanding and the bigger the toolbox the better able teams will be to deliver at the front end of innovation.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Successful innovative outcomes are more likely with collaboration throughout the entire front end of innovation process. This includes good inter-personal, inter-team and intra-organization communication. That means emphasizing both formal and informal communication. Often it’s the accidental kind of communication. Innovative outcomes benefit from the cross-pollination opportunities found where there is openness. Closed doors are never good for enhancing the climate for innovation. Teams benefit from knowing how to share what they are doing in ways that work for a range of different audiences.


This brings me full circle and back to front end of innovation team management Tip 1. It’s leadership that creates excitement, focus and a sense of urgency within an effectively communicative climate for innovation.


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