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.

How any team, anywhere can innovate anytime

Recently I had the pleasure of presenting to an Agile community Coaching Agile Journeys. Coaching Agile Journeys was gracious enough to share my charts and talk and a couple goodies that are valuable tools for understanding collaborative preference in the wild. And most recently, Open Camps hosted a similar talk. Thanks to both!

Until I start breaking it all down here, you can go there to find out more about the keys to breakthrough teams and how teams can cultivate a deliberate culture of innovation.

What Agile has taught me about team synergy

My experience with Agile teams suggests there is a formula for realizing the potential in teams — and we know how to identify it.

Teams can most grow in their collaborative capacity when team members are aware of their differences of perspective in approaching challenges, and learn how to deliberately leverage those preferences to overcome individual and collective blind spots. When teams learn how to turn energy gaps into collaborative strengths, they tend to move from adopting Agile practices to embodying an Agile mindset at a much faster rate. It is the insight into collaborative preference that helps break down team barriers and opens the door to accessing creative potential.

There is ample research, and there are many case studies, showing teams who are preference-aware and trained in a process to yield creative outcomes outperform teams that are not. Further, they are known to produce more and higher quality ideas and enjoy working with their team more than untrained, unaware teams.

While Agile is an effective framework for producing value sooner, its fullest value is not generally realized without a mechanism for creatively feeding and managing the backlog. All of the collaborative preferences I have measured within teams routinely point to Agile practices needing to grow in maturity/fluency. The sooner teams see these gaps and overcome them with a creative process, the faster they move from mastering practice (efficiency) to generating real value (effectiveness and impact).

Teams are the human equivalent of data; they are the latent source of creative potential waiting to be properly mined for customer value. If that potential is encapsulated in the fundamental question, “how do we get better?”, then the technique best suited to discovering team potential is found in the followup question: “where do we need improvement?”

Research in synergistic teaming shows breakthroughs come when teams have alignment on purpose; a creative process to engage their collaborative strengths; and a vibrant team dynamic (communication, safety, trust, creative abrasion). The quicker teams close their learning feedback loops, the sooner they can begin tapping into their unrealized potential. Coupled with creative problem solving training, I have seen great opportunity to speed up the time to value creation.

Research in creativity strongly supports drawing out the creative best in a self-directed team by putting people’s strengths together to form a greater whole, and to train for deliberate creative outcomes. This research reinforces the literal definition of kaizen: to resist the plateau of arrested development.

Immediate takeways for any team

How does your team get better in areas where it does not know it needs to get better?

The alignment of agile and innovation

Innovation is the natural outcome of an Agile culture. Or it should be. When well-structured teams adhere to both the practices and principles of Agile, they are engaging in a structured ritual of collaboration. That structure offers an opportunity for novelty, inquiry, and investigation of new ideas that can lead to breakthrough outcomes.

The Agile iteration begins with a planning session that leads to a user story backlog. These are raw ideas of a sort, generated to answer specific problems or challenges or address new opportunities. As they are assembled in a backlog they undergo sizing and scheduling exercises, to determine if they are the right work to do, how and when the work will be done, and what the sense of its impact will be.

Once sized and prioritized, user stories are committed to and managed in a rigorous pipeline of work. Only so many items can be opened and in progress at a time, to maximize focus and complete each story. As stories are completed according to their respective ‘done’ conditions and acceptance criteria, new stories move from the backlog to “work in process” until an iteration is complete. It is only at the completion of an iteration that items are stories are assessed in retrospect for their results:

  • Did we achieve what we set out to accomplish?
  • Do the stories appropriately speak to the challenges we were addressing?
  • Were the needs of our customers and end users properly met?
  • Did we succeed in delighting our consumers?
  • Are we working well as a team in our delivery?

While many of the questions may be answered in the affirmative, the retrospective ritual demonstrates how teams can always be more in tune with their customers and themselves in providing quality deliverables. So as new questions arise out of the results, new stories fill the backlog in an attempt to improve quality and value. And so the discovery begins anew.

The rhythms and rituals of Agile are remarkably similar to those of breakthrough thinking. If the meaning of life was viewed as a series of problems, challenges or opportunities to be discovered and engaged, then finding our life purpose consists of a similar pattern: understanding the challenges before us; conjuring novel thoughts and ideas to meet those challenges; fashioning a plan; and carrying it out to completion – or rather, until we assess our results and see how they measure up – and starting anew, until we reach a breakthrough. The greater the breakthrough, the more likely we have expressed innovation: that mythical end state of doing things in a novel, impactful manner.

If in our course of discovery and delivery we find a new method of achieving our goals, a more exciting or efficient way of creating value, we open up for ourselves an even broader array of challenges and opportunities to explore and engage. From a macro view, Agile presents itself as a marvelously effective mechanism for applying human ingenuity to a rigorous framework and producing tremendous value. From a micro view, the value created is found in the who infinitely more than the how.

The best expression of innovation in an Agile context, therefore, lies within the team structure.

Immediate takeways for any team

What does innovation look like? How are your teams structured to unleash it?

Finding the nugget of an idea that makes all the difference

I’m not a fan of pros and cons lists. The unspoken assumption is that if we just list everything good or bad about an idea, then one half of the list will likely outweigh the other. Such a binary approach gives little room to explore the gray area, and doesn’t offer any insight into what opportunities are waiting to be mined.

The Evaluation Matrix brings a deliberate approach to assessing which ideas have potential and which should come off the short list. The goal is straightforward: evaluate a series of ideas against the known variables that will help or hinder its potential for implementation. Let’s take a closer look at how we fill out this matrix.

Once you have completed a brainstorming session, select the top handful of ideas that really stand out. Give special attention to those that have a certain sparkle or pop, or really seem to “fit” the problem space. Enter each idea on its own row in the matrix.


Next, assemble a list of options common to every idea, and enter them as column headings. Borrowing from the Issues step in POINt, ideate on ways we tend to critique new ideas: some examples are cost, impact, feasibility, ROI, likelihood of a quick win. Make sure every option you select is stated in a positive manner. Add at least three critieria to ensure a multi-dimensional evaluation. The more discrete the criteria you have, the more granular your assessment will be.

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Come up with a scale for assessing an idea against an option (1,2,3; High/Medium/Low). Color coding is highly effective in visually representing an idea.

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Then begin evaluating the first idea. Assess the idea’s entire row of critieria, one at a time. Then repeat with each successive idea until the entire matrix is filled in. There is no need to overthink the assessment – much like Planning Poker in Agile story sizing, the assessment serves to open up a conversation about why this option is a positive or negative attribute of an idea. So keep going!
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After assessing your ideas, take a closer look at where each one stacks up and where it falls short. If an idea is mostly red/low, they can probably be set aside. If it is mostly green/high and yellow/medium, it likely has merit to prioritize. If there are red/low items but the idea otherwise looks promising, target the weaker spots in its assessment. What is it about this idea that makes this one criteria a pain point? How might it be addressed? If this idea has merit, conduct a targeted brainstorming session on how to improve this aspect of the idea. If the concern is cost, some possible challenges are:

  • What might make this solution more cost-efficient?
  • How might we partner with <insert stakeholder> to help fund this solution?
  • What if we first conducted a proof of concept?

Once you generate ideas for how to strengthen the weak points of a solution, you can optionally add it as a new row in the matrix or prioritize it as a prerequisite for prioritizing the original idea. Occasionally you may even find new criteria arise out of scrutinizing an option. Don’t be afraid to add it as a new criterion in your matrix for further refinement.

Immediate takeaways for any team

Evaluation Matrix is a flexible tool – you can create it on a whiteboard, in a spreadsheet, as an online Mural, or even a Trello board. It’s also a flexible process; your team almost always knows which critieria are deal breakers and which need more focus. As mentioned earlier, the goal of the Evaluation Matrix is to strengthen alternatives by objectively assessing them against a known set of options. The ideas to capitalize on are the ones that have the greatest likelihood of implementation.

An “agile”​ model of creative outcomes

The more I have studied and begun to practice the Agile methodology, the more I have discovered it is not strictly a new way of working. It is a cultural paradigm shift. The culture that supports Agile is one of transparency, accountability, humility (strongly coupled with confidence) and trust. Its purpose is to facilitate both doing the right work and doing the work right. Because Agile is built on the premise of valuing people, working products, collaboration, and change over rigid bureaucracy and strict policy, the natural outcome of Agile is, or ideally should be, innovation.

When we talk about creating an agile culture, what we really mean is how we express our creative capabilities to change or improve our circumstances. Creativity is an innate capability every human possesses. It’s at the heart of what drives our curiosity and passion; it is what fuels our desire to grow, both personally and professionally. It thrives in environments where ideas are welcomed, even if not adopted because they are free to be adapted. Ideas in and of themselves are conduits of creative thought that spark other creative thought. Cultures in which ideas are welcome tend also to be those that allow for experimentation, and the iterative reworking of ideas leads to breakthrough. No one will risk an idea a second time if the first one is shot down. And few ideas thrive in environments hostile to change. Agile cultures are, or should be, fertile soil for cultivating the idea seeds that lead to rich solutions.

If Agile is the soil of innovation, I see Design Thinking as the fertilizer that enriches the soil and makes it receptive to growth; the Miracle-Gro that accelerates ideation and discovery. Since its focus is empathizing with end users, it is the catalyst to discover new opportunities that lead to creative outcomes. The team I work on at IBM has found seeds of novel thought germinate faster when infused with Design Thinking because of the intense focus on the user experience over new a feature set. Ideas are ultimately enriched with clarity of outcome instead of excitement for new tools.

As an ecosystem for organizational growth, there are strong linkages between Creative Problem Solving (CPS) and the Agile and Design Thinking practices. CPS is a well-known, well-researched methodology for bringing novelty to problems, challenges, and opportunities. When we see CPS at the base of any methodology for process improvement, we begin see every process as an expression of creative opportunity. When we look at software development and product design as halves of the same whole, we might begin to consider how all of our work for customers and users is an exercise in harnessing our collective creative energy. Our purpose, ultimately, is to continuously produce something novel that is useful to our customers and end users. To me the implications of this thought are that Agile, Design Thinking, Lean, Scrum and other such practices are elegant frameworks for channeling our creative energy through a specific process to produce a specific type of creative product or outcome.

The Systems Model of Creativity, as articulated by my colleague Dr. John Cabra, is one way of looking at any process improvement effort as a means to producing novel and useful outcomes and therefore, creative change. Substitute “Design Thinking” for process, and you have output specific to empathizing with users. Plug in “Agile” and you have a pipeline for continuously improving a product or service.

This is not to suggest a simple “plug-and-play” model of cultivating innovation. However, considering the strong alignment Agile and Design Thinking practices have with CPS, there is strong evidence to suggest the union of the three offer tremendous synergy. This specific area of focus is rich in potential exploration.

Innovation building blocks

How we collaborate dictates how we innovate. How we build teams predicts how they will perform. Research in the field of creativity demonstrates the explicit use of a creative process yields higher predictive team effectiveness (number and quality of ideas, team morale and enjoyment). So it is crucial for leaders to understand how their teams are best structured to creatively solve problems. But how to measure effective collaboration? How do we tune talent to tools and technology in a sustainable way?

Chances are the foundation of whatever process or framework you employ looks like Breakthrough Thinking, an applied innovation methodology based on 60 years of study in the field of creativity.

Deconstructing the building blocks of innovation, we find a common set of elements:

1 – Explore your Challenge – Clarify the problem, challenge or opportunity. Sift through the relevant data and context of a problem to highlight the essence. This is the time to get all your assumptions out on the table. It is also the optimal time for root cause analysis.

One effective means of understanding your challenge, goal or problem is to perform a gap analysis:

  • Where are we now? (current reality)
  • Where do we want to be? (desired future state)
  • What are all the things standing between our current reality and our desired future state?

Design Thinking offers exceptional input here as well in the form of empathy maps. The more intimately connected you are to your end user, consumer or stakeholder, the greater the likelihood you will uncover  a meaningful insight.

2 – Imagine the Possibilities – Consider all the possible ideas related to answering the challenge. How do we bridge the gap from current reality to our desired future state?

Brainstorming is a technique most often used here, though there are numerous divergent thinking tools to help bring out the best novelty.

However you generate ideas, deferring judgment during ideation is key. That means get your ideas out on the table (or wall), and determine their value later. Studies show the best (most novel) ideas are in the last third of ideas generated, so don’t be afraid to push for more.

3 – Shape your Future – This step in Breakthrough Thinking helps you answer the question, “What do we need to do to achieve our to-be?” Select and strengthen the best ideas, assess them for impact and feasibility, develop them into a workable solution.

  • Filter: which ones stand out?
  • Evaluate: what do you like about the ideas you selected? What could you improve?
  • Prioritize: what do you see yourself doing now? What next? Who are the key stakeholders who must be on board?

4 – Act! – Plan for action and implement. Set up an action plan and assign concrete tasks. Then execute on those tasks. Learn from your mistakes, but keep the ball in play. The goal is to learn by doing; experimentation helps challenge your assumptions and validate your level of clarity.

Contingency planning is key. What could go wrong? What should we do if it does go wrong? Whose support do we need? How do we get it?

5 – Iterate – It’s not over yet. Breakthrough Thinking is a re-entrant process, in which you revisit previous steps along the way to verify you’re on the path to breakthrough.

Immediate takeways for any team
  • The process of applied innovation is not linear. Every step of the process can and should repeat, especially where there needs to be more clarity or re-calibration.
  • None of the elements of breakthrough thinking are novel. Most likely you recognize the intuitive part each element plays in collaborative problem solving. The question is: how deliberate is your team’s approach to collaboration?

If your method of innovation is not intentionally reinforced, it is likely your team has biases (both strengths and blindspots) that will hamper your innovation potential. The more you experiment with these steps, the more likely you will uncover both.

How misfit toys can rule the world

Or, to innovate first be creative

Creativity is the union of person, process, and environment that leads to a novel and meanzingful outcome. If creativity is defined as novelty with meaning, then innovation is the adoption of that novelty and meaning as a changed behavior. So another way of seeing innovation is as a creative product that causes systematic change.

If I see a gap between desired future state and current reality as a problem, mentally I may cast all my gaps in a negative light. But if I were to see a gap as an opportunity for meaningful change, I might begin to embrace those gaps as ways to improve my standing or way of life. Were I to then form a habit of seeing gaps as opportunities, my creative approach might take on a behavioral change in others. The potential for my novel approach to problem solving would likely influence my team to also view problems in a counterintuitive fashion:

  • How might we build trust and rapport in the face of crisis?
  • What are all the ways we can surprise and delight our users when we fix this bug?
  • What if we took advantage of this challenge as a new way to see our purpose?

The essence of creativity is novelty: asking open-ended questions, turning a conventional thought process on its head, refashioning the meaning of a current circumstance to see it from another perspective. Employing novelty as a way of doing things moves a team from a creative approach to a single challenge to an innovative culture in which it works and creates value.

Creativity is the plumb line that leads to building a common innovation structure for every new project. The more intentional a team becomes in asking questions designed to reframe the discussion, the more endemic the approach and the more likely it will apply new ways of doing things to its work routines. So much so our “routines” themselves stand the chance of becoming novel disciplines that differentiate our outcomes.

The genesis of the Moneyball phenomenon was a novel question: how does a small market baseball team compete for talent with large market teams when their operating budgets are orders of magnitude apart? By necessity, the Oakland A’s focus needed to shift from assessing talent based on traditional scouting techniques, known as the classic ‘5 tools’ (hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning skills and speed, throwing ability, and fielding abilities), as an indicator of team success. By reframing their monetary challenge (“What if we were to buy runs to win games, not players?”), they began to see value in players who were considered liabilities to the rest of major league baseball.

The solution? For every high profile player lost to free agency, The A’s recreated the player in the statistical aggregate. That is to say, if they could not afford a player whose on base percentage is .347 (makes it on base nearly 35% of his at-bats), then they found cheap players whose collective average equals a high OBP. Why cheap? Because MLB viewed each player through a lens that suggested the players are defective in some way. To remain competitive in an unfair market, the A’s found value in undervalued players to create an Island of Misfit Toys who could be just as competitive as big money teams. Their line of thinking eventually became disruptive enough to major league baseball for teams such as the Boston Red Sox to adopt their approach – and win two world championships as a result.

A creative approach to money management led to a disruptive force in an industry. And it all began with a simple question: how do we compete in a field where we are doomed to fail?

Immediate takeways for any team

What questions best open up your team discussions for a creative approach to solving critical challenges? And how have you found those approaches turning into a way of working?