News & Insight
October 2010

Nine Strategies to Drive Innovation in Teams

Amy Armitage, SVP, WJM Associates

As the economy sputters forward on the road to recovery, many executives are shifting gears to re-focus their organizations on creativity and innovation in the quest for growth, according to research conducted by WJM Associates. Most critical, businesses are investing again in teams as a way to tap innovation, develop new skills and re-engage their employees. This article identifies nine strategies used by WJM clients and market leaders to drive team creativity, innovation, and alignment.

1. Using Data to Identify and Discuss Customer Needs.
Customer centricity remains a strong theme among companies and teams focused on growth and innovation. But innovation only occasionally starts with the "big idea." More often, creativity can be found at every level, and especially in teams where the voice of the customer is a source of continual feedback and improvement. Innovative teams use customer data (internal and external) and feedback to frame the conversation and ask questions. Their leaders stress the urgency - even the crisis - that frames the team's need to deliver value. Innovative teams understand their competitor's strengths and weaknesses - and also their own unique value proposition. They continually ask, "How do we differentiate our products and services to deliver value?"

2. Finding and Developing the "Right" Talent.
Having the right talent on your team is a core requirement needed to drive innovation and growth. Yet the challenge is not only to recruit and place talent, but also to ensure that this talent is working effectively within the team and business environment to drive business outcomes. Market leaders often use development and assessment tools to help their employees function more productively within and across work teams. They promote diversity of thought and cross disciplinary thinking. As a practice, they also provide team members with information about each other's skills and preferences enhancing understanding, communication and respect.

3. Creating a Climate that Fosters Innovation.
A third strategy for enhancing innovation and creativity addresses the team's work environment. Innovative teams require a "climate of innovation." Climate is the recurring behavior, attitudes and feelings that people experience at work that support or hinder innovation. One of the better known innovation climate survey instruments is the SOQ based upon the work of Swedish psychologist Dr. Goran Ekvall. The SOQ measures people's perceptions of nine innovation dimensions and, unlike many broad-based climate surveys, may be used at the work team level. These dimensions include: challenge and involvement, freedom, trust and openness, idea time, playfulness and humor, conflict, idea support, debate, and risk taking. People in innovative teams are found to have more of each dimension, with the exception of conflict - a negative dimension in the SOQ scale. Leaders and human resource partners work to address any needed dimensions.

4. Creating Clear Direction through a Common Vision, Goal, and Priorities.
Creating a clear and shared vision, measurable goals, and priorities are other strategies of innovative teams. The shared vision provides a picture of what could be. Vision is a catalyst that can impel an organization or team to move forward with a shared purpose. It is a "high order" objective. Measurable goals, on the other hand, create team accountability. Yet they also provide constraints and boundaries within which the team must operate. If managed correctly, these constraints can be a spur to creativity. Innovative teams are also good at setting innovation priorities.

5. Managing Ideas and the Innovation Process.
Creativity and innovation play different functions in teams. Creativity is often defined by ideas, especially the generation, interplay and diversity of ideas impacting each other. Innovation, on the other hand, is a process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service that people value. Innovative teams have both the idea generation capacity as well as the process that supports execution and value creation. More formal processes for prioritizing ideas and organizing the innovation process from beginning to end have improved success rates, according to McKinsey. Many companies adopt a formal stage-gate process (requiring executive approvals) to develop, refine and weed out new ideas that come from within the team.

6. Identifying and Managing the Barriers and Risks to Innovation.
Innovative teams take the time to continually identify the barriers and risks that are involved in a new process, product, or market initiative. They ask, how can barriers be eliminated or minimized? How can sponsors or systems be used to support new ideas and innovation? How will key stakeholders be impacted by any changes? Ironically, the biggest barrier to innovation, say many middle managers, is organizational - too much control from the top (smothering) or not enough support (neglect). More than a few companies are finding it hard to shift out of the restructuring mode of the last few years - to shift from cost cutting to innovation and the risk taking that may be required.

7. Promoting Collaboration and Relationship Building
Another key strategy of innovative teams is their willingness to collaborate across functions and create strong, proactive relationships with stakeholders. Ironically, some of the performance management tools used to segment and identify talent (such as the nine box and talent segmentation) can create hyper competitive work environments that make collaboration and risk-taking difficult. Behavior competencies can be used to stress targeted competencies related to collaboration, innovation and risk taking. Some companies like IBM have worked hard to build social networking capability and systems which promote collaboration across traditional boundaries and functions.

8. Using Feedback and Coaching to Improve Team Performance.
Innovative teams use feedback and coaching to improve processes. They have resources (internal and/or external) to develop skills, improve processes and transfer knowledge to ensure continuous improvement and learning. They identify key stakeholders and strategies to collect targeted feedback, especially in the launch of pilots and new initiatives. They view testing as a critical step which requires planning, communication and outreach.

9. Aligning Recognition and Rewards Around the Innovation Process.
Finally, innovative teams reinforce, recognize, reward and celebrate success. Typically, innovative teams offer a higher frequency of reinforcement for team members with peer reinforcement and recognition. For example, team members may practice active listening skills versus critiquing each other's ideas - a reinforcing practice which leads to a higher quality and volume of ideas. Innovative teams also provide higher levels of recognition for team performance, often celebrating key milestones in the team's performance. Their leaders also ensure alignment of tangible rewards (such as promotion and pay) with the achievement of team outcomes.

In Summary
In the drive for growth, leaders are employing new and not so new team strategies to engage and align teams to unlock innovation capability They are often countering the effects of cost cutting, restructuring, and low workforce engagement brought on by the recession. While it may be difficult to assess the full business impact of innovative teams, the evidence is clear that innovation strategies can accelerate the achievement of innovative business outcomes.

Innovation and Commercialization 2010: McKinsey Global Survey Results, August 2010.
Capitalizing on Complexity: Insights from the Global 2010 CEO Study. May 2010.
Schwartz, Tony. Six Secrets to Creating an Innovation Culture, Harvard Business Review on line, August 2010.
Bloomberg Business Week. "Can GE Still Manage?" April 2010.

Amy Armitage is a Senior Vice President with WJM Associates. She specializes in leadership development, behavior change, team effectiveness and innovation.

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