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The D Series: Tools to succeed at innovation

Putting people into a room together doesn’t make them a team

Originally published on February 1, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/putting-people-into-a-room-together-doesnt-make-them-a-team/article28439210/

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.

Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm’s past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: “Just because you put us into a room together doesn’t make us a team.”

In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This “task force” model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don’t have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm’s initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.

Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you’re asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn’t a part of their job descriptions.

In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren’t often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.

Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I’ve gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.

1. Leadership for performance: People don’t respond well to an inflexible “boss.” They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader’s focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.

2. Discovering everyone’s strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company’s DNA. The leader’s challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.

3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.

4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.

To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.

First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.

The twist-off beer cap and nine other simple innovations that surprise and delight

Originally published on December 29, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/the-twist-off-beer-cap-and-nine-other-simple-innovations-that-surprise-and-delight/article27919422/

I read a great phrase the other day: “Innovation is not renovation.” I couldn’t agree more. Innovation goes beyond slapping a new coat of paint on a product or service. It’s about finding ways to add real value for your customers. Value that makes their lives better, easier or less complicated.

Many business leaders shy away from innovation because they think it needs to be complicated. In reality, the process is easier than they think because successful innovation harnesses the obvious.

The essence of innovation lies in understanding what clients need and capitalizing on market shifts. It’s about continually re-engaging customers by meeting their changing preferences, often before they even realize those needs have changed.

Companies should start by recognizing their many opportunities to practice easy, effective innovation. The following 10 examples may reset your brain. They’ll help you see how simple it can be to develop new products, services and processes that will make a splash in any market.

The common theme? All 10 of these examples surprise and delight customers by solving problems, old or new. When you spend day and night obsessing over customers’ needs, innovation really becomes an exercise in bringing the obvious to life.

The twist-off beer cap

Even though the twist-off cap has been around for 50 years, it remains a pre-eminent example of simple yet game-changing innovation. I was working with a group of engineers not long ago and asked them to suggest simple innovations that have changed their lives. The twist-off beer cap was their favourite. Before twist-offs were commonplace, life was harsh and cruel. Using the engineers’ words (not mine), once you misplaced the bottle opener early in the evening at a university party, you spent far too long searching for it through the night.

Side-mirror sensors

I’ve yet to drive one of the new self-parking cars, so I will cite an automotive innovation that’s a little more mainstream: the side-mirror sensors that light up when a car is in your blind spot and blink when you put your turn signal on. An ingenious step forward in driver safety.

Coffee sleeves

Simple, obvious, wildly inexpensive – yet only invented in 1993. These finger-saving pieces of textured paperboard may be the most elegant innovation of all.

Selfie stick: If people are going to insist on taking photographs of themselves and their friends, why not help them take better photographs of themselves and their friends? A classic example of a lightning-quick response to a sudden behaviour shift.

Netflix, Nook and Kindle

We are no longer patient people. So instead of making us visit a storefront or wait for delivery, these powerful enablers of entertainment allow us to access any movie, TV series, video game or book we want … now!

Airbnb

This global room-renting, house-sharing app lets you choose precisely the accommodation you want. It’s cost-effective for users and a new business model for owners. A classic case of disintermediation.

Remote car starter

Hey, this is Canada. On a cold, dark winter morning, a warmed-up car may not make your day perfect. But it’s a hell of a good start.

Tide Pods

No more searching for the scoop and guessing how much detergent to use. Set and forget: Someone else has done all the work.

HOV lanes

As long as we have internal combustion engines, fewer cars on those roads is good for the planet. Rewarding drivers for sharing the ride with passengers makes eminent sense.

Personal service

There is nothing better than high-quality service to build customer loyalty. One of Canada’s foremost service practitioners is Longo’s, an independent Ontario grocery chain. When a customer asks where an item is, Longo’s policy is not to have an employee just point to the right aisle, but to walk customers to the exact shelf where the product sits. At a Longo’s recently, I watched an elderly shopper ask for help. Longo’s team member led her to the right location, and then re-arranged the goods in the basket of her walker to assuage the customer’s fear that her softer groceries might get damaged. Little things make a big difference.

If you’re out to make a difference in your market, you’ll face two well-known barriers to change: the naysayers who argue “That’ll never work,” and those who say “We don’t have time to innovate.” Ignore the doubts. Innovation is easy when you target real needs with inexpensive, intuitive solutions. Look for simple wins. And keep the breakthroughs coming.

Why your company is failing to innovate

Originally published on December 4, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/why-your-company-is-failing-to-innovate/article27510973/

An executive recently said to me: “Our company has become very innovative. We have hundreds of ideas that we have analyzed and know are right for our future. We just haven’t been able to bring them to market yet.”

Strike one, strike two and strike three. This executive doesn’t know any more about innovation than he knows about hitting a 100-mph fastball.

Innovation is not simply about having an idea. It’s about commercializing ideas: Bringing them to market in ways that benefit your company and your customers. Having an idea may be insightful or even creative, but it certainly doesn’t make you innovative.

It shouldn’t be this hard. What could be simpler than having an idea and acting on it?

But according to Forbes magazine, it’s just not that simple. In a February, 2015, article entitled “Why U.S. Firms Are Dying: Failure To Innovate,” Steve Denning writes: “A new survey from MindMatters conducted this month suggests that many American companies are still in an ‘innovation crisis.’ ”

In the survey Denning cites, “only 5 per cent of respondents report that workers in innovation programs feel highly motivated to innovate. More than three of four say their new ideas are poorly reviewed and analyzed. And less than a third of the firms surveyed say they regularly measure or report on innovation.”

In my work with large and small companies, across many industries and countries, there seems to be three common and significant barriers to success.

The first barrier is transparency

We are better at hiding our ideas than bringing them to market. We write them on sticky notes, scrawl them on loose pieces of paper, or input them into notes apps on our phones – and then forget all about them. To be an effective innovator, you need inclusive transparency. You need to solicit ideas from your team and post them in a visible place in your office, along with the criteria used to judge them, identification of the leader tasked with bringing each project to market and the progress of each project. With this approach, innovation is an open-and-shared process, with consistent measurement and reporting.

The second barrier is improper resource allocation

Mr. Denning’s articles also reports: “More than four of five respondents (81 per cent) say their firms do not have the resources needed to fully pursue the innovations and new ideas capable of keeping their companies ahead in the competitive global marketplace.” Don’t overpromise. If you have resources to achieve just two projects, choose the best two and commit to them. Too many companies bite off more than they can chew. Trying to do too much usually produces nothing – other than creating one more perceived failure in your organization.

The third barrier is the lack of an innovation culture

Innovation may depend upon the activation of market-ready ideas, but it is driven by organizational attitude. Successful corporations today need an innovation culture that inspires people to seek new possibilities and embrace change in their day-to-day work. As Mr. Denning notes: “The challenge is systemic: While more than half the respondents (55 per cent) say that their organizations treat intellectual property as a valuable resource, only one in seven (16 per cent) believed their employers regarded its development as a mission-critical function. The lack of recognition for contributions to innovation is also striking: Almost half (49 per cent) believe they won’t receive any benefit or recognition for developing successful ideas.”

Don’t expect your team to act on new ideas in their spare time. It sends the message that innovation is a hobby, not a commitment. To achieve breakthroughs, you need to carve time out of your team’s workweek to devote to new projects and directions. (Google famously gives its best engineers a day a week to work on innovation ideas of their own creation.)

Your employees’ innovation successes also need to be recognized, both publicly and at their next performance review. There is nothing better than a public thank you – except maybe a share of the profits – to make people feel appreciated. These moves also reconfirm the organization’s recognition that its own people are the source of future success.

Innovation isn’t an idea on the back of a napkin; it’s a framework of resources and rewards that focuses your entire team on ideation, experimentation and product-market fit. A shared innovation agenda gives your organization greater ability to grow revenue, control costs and engage entire teams. Innovation also improves the customer experience, through the continuous introduction of new and improved product offers and services.

When the innovation process is shared and understood, there’s no more expecting unprepared batters to hit fastballs. When it comes to innovation, it takes a team to hit the ball out of the park.