Effective Teams for the Front End of Innovation

Three fundamental questions need to be asked when putting teams together for the work of finding really good ideas to populate the Innovation Hopper at the fuzzy front end of innovation.

  1. What is the strategic business context for the work?
  2. What outcomes must the team deliver?
  3. What collateral benefits must the team accomplish?

The answers to these three questions trump all the other criteria of diversity – gender, experience, skill sets, function and any psychometric innovation profiles. Why? Because these three questions are strategic, and without strategic intent, the tactical decisions about team composition will default to a checklist norm in which checking boxes passes for really thinking about team composition.

The business context for the fuzzy front end work and the specific outcomes a team must accomplish are closely aligned. Consider the differences in strategic intent between looking for ideas for a new product, and looking for ideas for a new business. The former is most likely to be an incremental innovation based on current platforms. The latter is a breakthrough innovation implying the development of a new platform and even newer business model. The tactics for finding the next new product on an existing platform involve research and processes that are readily available. Product and R&D managers can easily staff a new product development team. The marketing department can readily support consumer-facing research. The capabilities of manufacturing operation are well-understood. The fuzzy is not very fuzzy at this front end. Putting the innovation team together is therefore a normative process.

When the context for innovation is looking for new business with a new business platform, then you are doing breakthrough innovation and that requires a breakthrough team. Setting out along the path of finding the next breakthrough innovation requires team members with intense intellectual curiosity, high tolerance for ambiguity and risk, and patient persistence. Breakthrough innovation teams must be more than cross-functional, they must be interdisciplinary, able to step across the social boundaries by which we structure knowledge. They must be individuals with enough self-confidence to go scouting into unchartered territory and to keep their footing. And they must be trusting types – with trust in an agreed upon process and trust in each other, that, together they will succeed. Putting this innovation team together requires special effort. Finding the optimal team of people does not involve looking at innovation profiles from psychometric tests. It can best be done by a more broadcast method that allows for self-selection, recommendation and a high-touch process starting with the person charged with leading the team and the project’s executive high cover.

It should be more common that front end of innovation teams have collateral expectations that align with the organization strategy. For example, front end of innovation teams can deliver the collateral benefit of a visible culture shift and to build individual and teamwork skills. For example, for front end of innovation teams to impact culture, then members should be chosen because they are peer group influencers and at the hubs of social networks. In this way, these well-placed individuals can be more effective as team members and also help disseminate process knowledge and skills throughout the organization. They also provide greater visibility for a project.

So, why not optimize front end of innovation teams by thinking and acting more strategically in terms of team composition?

To discuss more issues related to working in teams or for more information about team effectiveness at the fuzzy front end, contact Anne Orban at aorban@innovationfocus.com.

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