Customizing Innovation Teams


By: Anne Orban, MEd, NPDP

Creating and maintaining innovation teams can be a daunting task. One approach to team formation does not necessarily fit all innovation tasks, company cultures or desired outcomes. It can be instructive to think about innovation teams from a strategic perspective, beyond the usual and customary considerations of looking for team members with cross-functional representation complemented by values of diversity in other areas.

Strategically there is little ambiguity about what we’re calling the special forces team—not to be mistaken for the more familiar ‘skunk works’ team. By recognizing that the task is “impossible”— new to the company innovation in an established category that is significant enough to affect stock prices and reverse business decline – leadership is stating the need for bold, action-oriented individuals who can rise to the challenge. These individuals need to be comfortable working with a lot of ambiguity and risk. At the other end of the strategic spectrum is the institutionalized innovation team normalized often as part of the R & D function. This team type typically and reliably develops the incremental line and brand extensions from current equity.

The innovation teams positioned between these poles provide a range of strategic opportunities for team members and their organizations. The pollination team is one where the team sponsor is working to enhance members’ innovation skills. It is populated with the full expectation that team members will disperse to pollinate other parts of the organization with their acquired innovation skills and experience. When committing to this type of team, guidance is needed to ensure that the experience offers process experimentation and adaptation, encourages iterative learning, and yet is still oriented to tangible, actionable results. To become catalysts for innovation, these team members need to understand the innovation process to the fullest extent possible and have the accountability and authority to put their new-found knowledge to work when the team disbands.

Strategically, the show and tell team is positioned to see an innovation project through from discovery to commercialization. Members of these teams need to be passionate, doggedly persistent, and good internal sales people that can excite others to action. They are great problem-solvers and effective at meshing each stage to keep the innovation process moving along. Organizations that cultivate these team types often expect them to repeat their successful behavior on successive project tasks.

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