3 Ways to Get Your Innovation Team to Think Different

A few weeks back, I asked you for yourInnovation Questions. Thanks to everyone who contributed a question, and please continue to do so. The goal with my responses will be to suggest a tool, process or principle that could help you build a systemic solution. 

Below is a question from Graeme Crombie about helping his innovations teams open up to fresh insights.

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"How can I persuade an innovation team to be more outward looking, curious, and receptive to new insights? I often find myself working with experienced groups that already know a lot about their products and the industry and this knowledge somehow makes them feel like they don't need to speak to customers or suppliers or look at other industries. There is just a closed-mindedness sometimes - and I don't mean arrogant or even really complacent - just that they are unable or unwilling to look at things with fresh eyes." - Graeme Crombie

Hello Graeme, thanks for asking this question. I have experienced this many times as well.

It is a worthwhile endeavor to assist an innovation team in learning and internalizing new perspectives. After all, ideas are merely feats of association, and innovation is often the result of making new and non-obvious connections.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."

If I apply that mindset to innovating IÕd say, "Give me one month to invent a breakthrough innovation, and I will spend 3 weeks exposing my mind to new information."

Now, to understand what might be driving your teams'close mindedness, I try to gain an appreciation for the system within which these teams are operating. Then identify what might be motivating or demotivating the individuals within that system.

We, the Innovation Engineering Institute and our partners, have been measuring innovation teams for over two decades, collecting data on how individuals feel when it comes to taking action on innovation within their organizations. This data can give us insight into the culture we are up against when helping teams get started.

85% of employees who take the assessment report that their company approaches growth in a reactive way, preferring to copy what others have proven to be successful versus leading the market by creating radical new ideas.

If I am an employee at this type of company, a reasonable objection to your request Graeme is, "I already know what needs to be done." Especially if the company is simply following itÕs competitors.

I recently worked with someone from a very large organization who could tell me exactly what fixes and enhancements were needed to bring their current product up to the same level as their competitorÕs, and exactly how much it would cost to do so. But the company wasnÕt willing to invest the money at the time. 

This leaves teams feeling frustrated, and perhaps unwilling to seek novel and non-obvious insights.

A second data point from the assessment tells us that 45% of individuals feel that they do not have sufficient resources to get their job done. 

The objection that manifests from that kind of work environment is, "Mining for insights and learning about other industries is a waste of time.I am over worked and you want me to spend a few hours or days gathering information that might or might not be relevant for a future innovation? Who is going to cover my regular day to day duties?"

Furthermore, the individuals may not have much experience doing this type of thing.If they are strapped for time and resources, it will be first to drop off the priority list.

These are just some of the possible reasons why folks seem to be unwilling or uninterested in exploring their work with fresh eyes. But its important to note, itÕs a product of the culture within the organization. So avoid blaming the people, and address the culture and the consequences of that culture.

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No matter the state of the culture today, there are ways we can start to overcome the inertia and get our teams moving in the right direction.

1. Alignment. Get leadership involved to help you define the strategic objective with absolute clarity. What is the specific mission that the team is working towards? What is in bounds and out of bounds? WHY is it important to the organization?

Help leadership and the team understand that no one is going to be excited to invest time, energy or money into playing catch up. The proactive (and more profitable) approach is to leap-frog competition and lead customers to a new reality.

2. Education. Teach the team HOW to be curious and WHERE to find rich and relevant information. For many people, it will be the first time interviewing customers, suppliers or potential partners. What should they ask, what are they allowed to disclose? 

A little bit of education will help lower the fear and provide the tools that enable people to step outside their normal role.

3. Permission. Waste is inherent in being curious, because you can never be sure what information will be useful to you later. No one wants to feel like they are wasting their time. You, together with the companyÕs leadership, can help the team by giving explicit permission to spend time on this.

Block off specific chunks of time for research and interviews and mark it on the calendar. Plan specific field trips for the team to see, feel and experience something that will open their eyes to new possibilities.

Graame, I hope I was able to spark some ideas for you as you continue to help teams innovate. It might mean more work up front to get alignment from leadership, educate the team, and plan for specific learning opportunities, but it will make the ideas much stronger and the team more capable in the long run.