Back to Basics

By Anne Orban, M.Ed., NPDP

In 2000, hard to believe that’s more than a decade ago, I conducted a series of interviews with then current leaders of innovation in a variety of companies and collected them under the title, Front Line Perspectives on Innovation. One of these interviews was with Barbara Goss, then General Manager, Engineered Ceilings Solutions at Armstrong World Industries, Inc. Today’s buzz is all around corporate positions for driving innovation such as Chief Innovation Officers or Senior Managers of Innovation Capability and Development. Yet, many individuals in the trenches, without those titles and backgrounds, are needed and expected to lead, manage and deliver on grow through innovation. Back then, Barbara was a pioneer in Armstrong World Industries for new-to-the-world innovation at the fuzzy front end and she had a successful track record on that leading edge. What Barbara Goss identified in 2000 is a valuable reminder for today’s current crop of innovation leaders.

Getting Started, and getting started right

For us, it was the strategic planning process where we tried to answer the question, where can we get the growth we need and want? The Profit Zone by Adrian Slywotsky helped the senior management team think about business models that would take the company in new directions. The model led to platforms for innovation projects that could deliver on new market positions. Another book, HyperCompetition by D’Aveni reinforced for us the need to embrace continuous change and provided some ways to frame leapfrog strategies.

The impetus for innovation projects can come from many sources and usually flows from the market place – the existing market place, or an imagined future market place. Senior management needs to champion innovation for it to be appropriately resourced and rigorously pursued. Our innovation portfolio had three categories: line extensions that required managing through an abbreviated stage-gate process; new-to-the-company products that required managing through the full stage-gate process; and, new-to-the-world products where process follows content in the front end and you invent as you go along. Even here, and perhaps especially here, there must still be rigor applied around the fuzzy front end, such as milestones and measurement criteria, to avoid continuous invention without execution.

Insights from leading New-to-the-World Innovation projects

Senior management must give some direction to define the playing field, and senior management and the innovation team must be prepared for the process to lead beyond the existing asset base- for output that could include new business processes and alliances, as well as new offerings, both tangibles and services. The commitment to scanning and information gathering has to be extensive. The directive is go out and learn! When you come back, you need to ruthlessly sort through the new information to discover what it can mean, and where the leapfrog opportunities are for your organization. There must be rigorous discipline around the processing of data or the value of that data gathering effort is lost. There is definitely an amount of serendipity involved. Things don’t always clearly emerge. You need to be willing to dig around and play at it. Soak time is essential. You don’t often come to great realizations while actively working. There is no substitute for thinking time. When a team has been so busy, it can seem anathema to stop, but the lull is very important. You need to get a fresh mind. Connections won’t be made without that pause; the human brain requires it.

How to manage innovation up, across and down

All the work, time, and good thinking of the project team will come to naught if the team does not package and repackage! The innovation process, its learnings, and the team’s evolving recommendations must be appropriately packaged and reported out on a regular basis for other audiences – especially senior management and other stakeholders. The challenge is to transfer the new knowledge in ways that each audience can receive easily – to boil it down, and share it from the perspective of the audience, so that they can grasp it, and see how it can fit the organization. When developing these up-dates, always answer the question, “what’s in it for the audience?” and present the information so that it exhibits value for the audience.

The essential personal discipline around these updates is objectivity. It’s challenging, and exhausting, because you need passion for the innovation process but detachment when it comes to recommendations. For a team that is highly engaged and committed, it can almost feel like an out-of-body experience to step back and dispassionately evaluate and present findings.

The team must be coached on ‘letting go’ as essential to success. The goal is to get the organization to embrace the output as its own discovery. It must feel like the next logical thing they are going to do. The drill is to transfer and walk away; this can be difficult and needs to be handled with sensitivity.

Leadership, Management and Membership for an Innovation Team

The leadership Challenge in New Product Development

The leader is the chief servant. The job of the leader is to bring out the talents of the individuals and harmonize their rich diversity to get the team where it needs to go. This is not ‘command and control’. This is not a situation where the leader has all the answers, either. Making a group into a team takes time as it goes through the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing and then adjourning.

The leader must get all the resources that the team needs, including providing needed amounts of the leader’s personal time and attention to each team member. Coaching should not be a scarce resource. Robert Greenleaf’s book on Servant Leadership brings out this perspective for leading teams. It suggests a mindset for bringing out the exceptional that is in everyone. The leader must establish on-going communication with the senior management team and functional groups to insure that the innovation team does not get divorced from the rest of the organization. The leader must connect (or reconnect) team members with the organization – to tell the organization what the team is doing and let team members present their learnings. This can be done in a variety of ways through formal updates, informal gatherings, even bringing non-team members into small group meetings with the team.

The leader is also responsible to build the pass-off strategy into the team’s process. The team can be coached in how to deal with decompression during a series of team meetings leading up to the transition phase. The leader must be explicit about communicating what is happening, when it is happening, how it will happen, and what affect it will have on the individuals. The leader must be very explicit for the team about when the project is over. The leader and team members must also be explicit in discussion with those responsible for taking the innovation forward – if they are different from the development team. Likewise, those taking the innovation forward must determine which of their current activities and responsibilities will be set aside or redeployed to allow for the new work. Compensation incentives and rewards must be built in for taking a project into implementation to ensure success. Shepherding this transition is a key responsibility for the team leader.

The team leader should arrange appropriate celebrations during the process to recognize milestones. As the project nears completion, celebrations can include senior business leaders. The celebration provides team member informal access to these senior managers for conversations about what will happen with them and the project as the next work stage will go forward. Senior managers must be prepared to answer these questions, address concerns, and reinforce the value of what the team has created. The team leader must also set up opportunities to thank and commend senior managers who have been helpful along the way. After all, they’re taking risks and stretching, too!

The team members tasked to the project must consider the project team part of their job. When significant financial rewards are given at an appropriate time, they must be positioned for recognition that the work was exceptional.

Structuring and managing successful innovation projects:

The leader must instill responsibility, accountability and empowerment. To accomplish this, the leader must serve up tasks as challenges for the team to solve. All problems must be considered solvable by the team first. The mindset is that we are learning as we go and nothing should be considered insurmountable; maybe we just need to restate the problem. The habit of mind must be instilled that the answer does not reside elsewhere, it resides in us and the rigor around this is that the answer is not always more money or different people. However, when really necessary, for alternatives to be developed, take the challenge outside the team to an expert counsel for further shaping.

A schedule can be both an asset and a pitfall. The argument that creativity takes time must be balanced with the need to drive results; otherwise, the organization will become impatient. You can quickly lose credibility with senior management and the organization if you can’t demonstrate command of a development timeline.

Project management requires very firm milestones. Identifying milestones are a necessity in schedule design – just like in a stage gate process. A multi-disciplinary team is a definite value. Multi-disciplinary is not synonymous with cross-functional. Functional diversity is important but you do need certain disciplines on the team and people with multiple disciplines in their skill set are particularly valuable. Ideally the team leader would select the team. That is not always the case, though, and team leaders need to be flexible.

A key component of successful team performance is each team member’s understanding of business principles. Each team member needs to think like a business owner and take responsibility like a business owner – not just provide functional expertise. The team’s output (if successful) will end up in a business plan. If team members are not familiar with key components of a plan and how to develop them, you’ll be well-served to provide some education and training for them to learn. The team must also be prepared to acquire other new skills beyond those in their immediate field of expertise. For example, if the team is going to spend time in the marketplace – and they should – they must be trained in listening and observing. This is not as obvious and straightforward as it sounds. Individuals’ capabilities for objective observation vary widely – but people can be taught to adjust for their biases once they are aware of them.

Human Factors

The leader must be prepared to coach the team through decision-making. One simple method is to analogize the situation to your personal life. When it’s you, your home, your life, it’s your right and responsibility to make decisions. So, applying that mindset, if this were your business and your money, what would you do?

To help develop the group’s dynamic as a high performing team, find a setting for team meetings that is different and away from the office structure. Ideally, it is a way to get away without having to travel. This space has a huge positive mental impact.

Humor is extremely important because the ‘ah-ha’ is close to the ‘ha-ha’. Humor is vital to helping team members develop rapport, manage stress, and handle the ambiguity that is an integral part of front end innovation. The team leader must help humor crop up, then facilitate sharing and celebrating it.

The team will hit a wall. For example, someone in senior management may not give the feedback necessary to keep the team energized. This can be extremely deflating and create pressure on the leader to help the team persevere. The first step for the team leader is to diffuse the anger and frustration by removing the team from the situation – get out to let it out. Remind the team that this work is ‘what we do’ not ‘who we are’. Regroup and try to objectively recreate what happened – what was specifically said? What was heard? What might have prompted the individual or group to say or do that? What else could have happened that day or earlier in that week, that was distracting or negatively influencing the reaction. This is a great time for humorous scenario building! Determine what exactly the team wanted or expected to hear and how the experience differed. Was it really that far off? Why? The leader then needs to go back to the senior manager(s) to explicitly find out the viewpoint and then figure out how to get the team’s approach or understanding realigned.

Thank you, Barbara, for conveying your experiences as a leader of new-to-the-world innovation projects. We trust that reflecting on these observations will enhance your performance as successful innovators.

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