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.

Primal leadership styles

The business case for driving results through effective leadership is compelling: the primal leadership model does, in fact, demonstrate how leadership styles affect behavior, which in turn affect results.

The six leadership styles, as articulated by Daniel Goleman, reflect the varying nature of leadership, based on the environment and the business climate. Although there is no “wrong” style, several are far more effective over time than others.

The styles are as encapsulated as follows:

  • Commanding: “Do as I say.”
  • Pacesetting: “I set high standards.”
  • Affiliative: “People come first.”
  • Democratic: “We all have an equal voice.”
  • Coaching: “Personal development is key.”
  • Visionary: “Come with me.”

Knowing your team, the business climate, and the current situation takes emotional intelligence. To resonate in any circumstance requires a fluency of leadership style.

Defer *this*

The dread of criticism is the death of genius – William Gilmore Simms

The notion of deferring judgment is a highly underrated, extremely powerful tool in the change leader’s toolkit. It is also highly underutilized.

It works something like this:

  • What if I were to refrain from censoring my own ideas long enough to inventory my options? (personal application)
  • What if I were mature enough to not need to hear my own voice in response to someone else’s thoughts on how to solve a problem? (interpersonal application)

We all succumb to any number of self-inhibitors when trying to think up novel ideas. Sometimes the inhibitors are so strong, we don’t even try to think; it is a struggle merely to be. the shame of it is, a nation of survivors does little to innovate, grow, or enhance the culture around us; much less cultivate our own personal mental space.

Statistics indicate most children are creative until they reach kindergarten or 1st grade. The corollary statistic says most adults are no longer creative. The ratio is something as obscene as 85:15.

The conundrum of processing judgment instantly rather than deferring it for a time is that we fear we will not be heard, or that we are somehow inviting others to walk all over us and our ideas as though we were a doormat. So we choose the path of pre-emptive verbal strikes. Typically long-winded and varying in degrees of “on-topic”, they help us scope out our territory, be heard (or at least be verbal, if not simply be loud), and prevent others from taking all the credit for an idea that is not our own. Or, at least, prevent them from poking holes in our thoughts because they are too busy holding their breath, attempting to get a #$*!$&!! word in at all.

This doctrine works equally well when talking ourselves out of an idea. Note the irony of an original thought being crowded out by our habitual mental defenses. For demonstration purposes, when was the last time you had a novel, potentially useful idea? What was your first mental or verbal response to it: positive or negative? What was your response the the last time someone else shared an original thought?

It is easier to resist in the beginning than in the end – Leonardo da Vinci

Studies further show students require a praise-to-criticism ratio of 4:1 just to maintain current behavior. To actually alter (read, improve) it, the ratio shoots up to 8:1.

Conclusion: we are far more likely to be negative than positive. Negative, judgemental thought is habitual to the point of going unnoticed in us. The routine of crushing, killing, stomping out or otherwise destroying others’ ideas will do that to a person, because we are so used to having our own novel thoughts crushed, killed, stomped out or otherwise destroyed.

Immediate takeways for any team

The downward spiral can be broken. What if, instead of critiquing someone else’s “bad” idea or our own “stupid” thought, we were to draw out the value and find the good or great potential?

Change leaders bear an extra burden to turn the tides of meaningful change on behalf of those they wish to lead.

Emotionally intelligent teams require emotionally intelligent leaders

In order to succeed, an organization must achieve measurable results. These are only as “good” over time as the teams that produce them; and in order to produce at continually high levels, those teams must serve within a climate that induces them to (want to) continue to succeed.

There is a business case to be made not only for attracting and retaining top talent, but also for getting results once you have landed them. Knowing how to recruit, then place people in the right positions to excel and drive successful business returns, is all about knowing first what makes a person tick, then understanding how best to integrate their skills, talents and goals into the greater organizational value proposition.

Put another way, to effectively capture the heart and mind of the free agent, a leader must know what motivates them.

Within the context of primal leadership, the ability to leverage one’s emotional self-awareness and respond empathically to others is key to motivating followers to respond in positive, self-affirming ways that resonate in their hearts and minds.

Immediate takeways for any team

EI leaders recognize what drives their people from within, and they connect with that emotional reservoir to provide value both to the follower and the organization at large. Because there is no externally motivating factor that taps a follower’s inner drive, EI leaders are only successful in leading when they identify with their people’s internal passion.

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?

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.

How to take an idea from good to great

What most people don’t realize about evaluating ideas is that we do it far more frequently during informal discussions than we do in a structured setting. That means we are much more likely to have a new idea presented to us without any warning. In those moments, POINt (also called “Praise First”) is an ideal evaluation tool that is uniquely suited to having a creative conversation.

The real power of POINt lies in its ability to affirm the person pitching an idea by affirming the idea itself. Let’s peel back the layers and see how easy it is to turn an impromptu proposal into a creative thinking opportunity.

When someone comes forward to share a new idea, our typical response is to skip over what we like about it – the positives – in favor of critiquing what is missing. Just like in a brainstorming session, the key to an effective response in this moment is to defer judgment just long enough to assess an idea’s actual merits.

“Here’s what I like about …” or “Yes, and …” is a very effective way to respond to someone asking for your input on their novel thought. Even in the unlikely event the idea really isn’t novel, you’ve just been given a chance to build rapport with a colleague. Instead of turning something down that may have value, why not acknowledge and explore what the idea (and the person behind it) has to offer?

Spending some time considering why a new idea has value can and should give way to assessing the opportunity it promises. If you’re willing to look at a proposal with an eye toward value, it should “automagically” open you to your own creative thought. What potential might be here? Where might this thought progression lead? This is where your own creative energy can kick in, and lead to an even better potential breakthrough. Phrases like “wouldn’t it be great if …” and “how might we …” are great statement starters to open a new round of brainstorming and refining an idea into a potential solution.

By now you’re probably thinking, “when do I get to critique?”. This is the time! Once you have given some positive thought to an idea, then built on its potential, it’s time to look at the issues which might block your creative efforts. Who is likely to support or resist your proposal? What shortcomings or oversights could kill your idea in its tracks? What factors affecting the outcome of your ad hoc creative collaboration need to be addressed? This is the time to surface those concerns so you can address them.

Once you know what barriers to success might be in front of you, you’re ready to look at some New thinking. This is the moment your collective energy can bring insight into overcoming issues. What are some ways to engage stakeholders who might be for or against the idea? How might you overcome the issues you identified? While you always want to look for novel approaches, the new thinking here should also be specific.

Immediate takeways for any team

The ultimate goal of using POINt to have a creative conversation is that you build trust and collaborative momentum with a team member. The happy byproduct is that you come away with a new or improved direction for implementing something special.