Innovation Teams

In the previous column I concluded with the overview of the different types of innovation which organisations can generate.
In this article I want to dwell into the topic of innovation teams in organisations. I have found some very interesting research (Ashkenas & Spiegel, 2015) which argues the case that innovation teams should not run like a well-oiled machine. Which is indeed contradictory to “popular belief”. Let’s investigate this thought provoking argument further.
Innovation teams should not run like a well-oiled machine
Over the past several years, Ashkenas and Spiegel have compared successful and unsuccessful innovation teams in global organisations. One of their findings was that teams functioning more like machines – blindly following highly defined processes and execution plans — were the least effective at achieving their goals and coming up with innovations. The most successful teams, on the other hand, operated less like highly efficient machines and more like ant colonies. These teams were able to quickly adapt to changes in their environment, because they had a set of simple rules and a clear goal, allowing them more flexibility and ability to learn along the way. In my frame of reference, “effective” teamwork has always been positioned as one of the critical success factors in delivering projects and in achieving organisational goals. In all the courses and studies I have undertaken, the dynamics of teamwork have always featured and I have been exposed to the eminent forming-storming-norming-performing teamwork model popularized by Bruce Tuckman probably one time too many. That’s why this research caught my attention, and because I have experienced first-hand how powerful a smooth running team can be and also how detrimental a non-performing team can be.
Ashkenas and Spiegel lay down four conditions that leaders need to put in place if they want their teams to have the same kind of resilience as ant colonies, and let’s face it, ants survive in some of the harshest places on the planet. I briefly want to share their recommendations and the connection to “ant psychology”: 1. A powerful central mission and a loose central structure. Ants have no central control, no single “master ant,” yet the entire colony works together as one organism. They’re able to align their individual activities to the powerful common purpose that each ant shares – the survival of the nest. Organisations, of course, are not composed of ants. Leaders of effective innovation teams, however, must infuse their members with a passionate commitment to their mission while also giving them the freedom to achieve it in whatever way is necessary. 2. Frequent interaction to maximize learning. When an ant finds a food source, it leaves a pheromone trail so others are pointed toward that same direction. It’s a time- and energy saving way to communicate. Rich, frequent, and candid communication is also important for organisational teams to find innovations as quickly as possible. People need to bounce around ideas, share serendipitous insights, and challenge each other’s assumptions. 3. Constant experimentation. Ants constantly take random walks in different directions to identify potential threats, find new places for nests, and create new pathways to food sources. In other words, they are constantly probing their environment and testing new ways to adapt to it. Effective innovation teams must similarly be encouraged by their leaders to test ideas through action instead of just through studies, debates, and analyses. 4. Freedom to look for the next horizon. Although ants spend most of their energy dealing with the challenges of their current environment, they always allocate some resources to securing the future. To do this, ant colonies instinctually send out scouts to look for future food sources. Similarly, effective innovation teams must invest in a portfolio of ideas with different time horizons so that they won’t be caught without a plan B when plan A does not pan out.

Next Time
We are still busy with the article’s rebranding, please bear with us. I conclude with a quote by Tony Robbins: “It’s not about your resources, it’s about your resourcefulness”.
Sources
Ashkenas, R., & Spiegel, M. 2015. Your Innovation Team Shouldn’t Run Like a Well- Oiled Machine. Harvard Business Review. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.hbr.org.

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