Want to build a better innovation pipeline? Build a better team

Experimenting with ideas is the inflection point between a creative product and an innovative one. Creativity requires a well-defined problem (or opportunity) space, novel thought, and a workable solution. Innovation requires bringing that solution to an increasingly wider range of people who find value in it (scale) or a select few who will apply it in a very specific context (impact). This can happen with a marketing plan, or a variety of ways of rolling out a product or service. A solution can have just enough unique value that the earliest adopters sell it to their social networks, affording the producer fresh resource to mature it. However it occurs, the degree to which it changes behavior is the compelling factor for innovation. In order for there to be innovation, there must be a tipping point – a moment in time in which a product or service tangibly affects the status quo.

So how do you innovate?

We cannot begin to innovate until we understand what makes something novel and useful. An idea needs a context. We need to find a gap between what is and what could be that inspires us to make something better. Somewhere between conjuring up a way to make something better and then actually doing it, and then being able to do it again, is where we move from creative outcome to innovation.

Teamwork makes the dream work

When we develop empathy for others, we move from conflict to creative tension. Conflict is demotivating to a team in that it turns professional problems into personal ones, while creative tension is a type of friction that builds better solutions. So when we know where people prefer to spend their time problem solving or collaborating, there is greater potential for insight into how to align on the same problem. Alignment moves a team from an assembly of talented people to a single entity whose whole is greater than the sum of its individual members.

Katzenbach & Smith define a team as “a small number of people … committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Agile teams take this a step further in that they are intended to be self-directed; given a prioritized backlog (goals), the team decides who will complete which tasks, and how (methods).

The core questions any team must ask itself are:

  • What is our purpose? What are we expected to accomplish as a team?
  • How willing are we to align and engage to achieve our purpose?

Everything a team or its individual members is tasked to do is ultimately an exercise in problem solving. Whether writing code, sweeping floors, or replacing a flat tire – in short, if you’re employed, you are expected to solve a problem for someone. The role you now hold was created to speak specifically to addressing a challenge or opportunity you or your employer faces. If you work on a team, your purpose is to pool your collective resources to overcome that challenge or meet that opportunity.

Regardless of whom the consumer of their work may be, an effective team exists to solve problems on behalf of its customers and stakeholders. In service to that purpose, team members bring a variety of skills, capabilities, and personalities to bear on problem solving.

Research in Creative Problem Solving show teams untrained in a collaborative process struggle with:

  • productivity
  • enjoying the collaborative process
  • being accepting of others and others’ ideas
  • deliberately harnessing their creative resources
  • effective teaming (International Center for Studies in Creativity, 2014 Bus Study)

The consequences for businesses are substantial: lost opportunity (revenue), wasted resources, lower morale. For team dynamics to contribute to effective problem solving, teams need to have both a shared understanding of their purpose and an established collaborative process to follow. The more purposeful a team (doing the right work) and the more effectively they apply a common process (doing the work right), the better the outcome and anticipated team dynamic. So it should not sound crazy to say a team without a clarity of outcome or a process to get there will likely suffer from any number of team dysfunctions, and at minimum will suffer productivity loss.

The three things a team can control

Within every team lies a specific purpose, process, and dynamic. These are the three organizational variables over which teams have ultimate influence and autonomy. Although in an Agile context one might say the iteration practices constitute a process, even the most rigorous and effective process must be driven by a shared understanding of purpose or mission. So without a cohesive understanding of why your team exists, your dynamic will have a negative impact on your team’s Agile rituals and ceremonies. The more your team has a shared understanding of its purpose, the more potential it will have for effective self-direction and work product that makes it proud of its efforts.

Team dynamics influenced by purpose and process consist of effective communication; participative safety and trust; and creative abrasion or tension. In Agile teams we can see strong linkages to the core Agile values of trust, openness, respect, empathy, and courage. Courage speaks to the communication dimension of team dynamic; the more empowered a team is by its process and purpose, the more likely team members will exhibit courage in holding the whole team accountable for its outcomes. Even more, a truly dynamic Agile team will explore their courage boundaries by pushing the limits of what is possible to accomplish. In our experience, teams with a strong collaborative dynamic are willing to take more risks because they are confident in — and therefore trust — one another’s abilities.

Where does trust like this originate? No self-directed Agile team works out of ignorance of its purpose. And no effective team operates outside a well-known, well-trained, rigorous process. The “why” of mission and “how” of process are the two oars driving a rowboat: without both teams will end up going in circles over time. The dynamic of that experience speaks for itself.

Immediate takeaways for any team

The best Agile teams rely on more than their practices and rituals as a framework for executing tasks and managing their backlog. Their strength is not in the Agile framework alone, but in the way the team sources ideas, and plans and delivers its backlog. Strong team process requires strong team empathy that allows teams to embrace creative tension.

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