How to setup an ‘innovation team’

To become really innovative, your company needs a special culture, a new mindset across all levels, disciplines, and functions. As a leader, you need to introduce and promote a solid innovation framework, which will gradually become part of the normal, day-to-day business. But, to reach this point, you will have to go through a challenging transformation phase, which is expected to have a significant impact on your company. This requires a talented ‘innovation team’ – the right synthesis of strategists, technologists, and communicators - to lead this fundamental change and operate at the core of the ‘innovation machine’; to introduce the new culture, to inspire teams and drive innovation by example.

Team Responsibilities

The objectives and specific roles of the ‘innovation team’ depend on the type, size, and industry of the company. In the typical case, companies need a driving force from within – a solid team to naturally diffuse the innovation thinking, to introduce the right technologies and the best practices regarding innovation and creative thinking; to make sure the overall innovation program is also in alignment with the on-going business; to manage the noise and the risk of (internal) disruption from the ‘innovation machine’.

This special team needs to be strategic, tactical, agile and fast. Depending on companies’ innovation readiness, the responsibility areas of the ‘innovation team’ may include the following:

  • Set the strategy, define success

    The strategy and the roadmap towards the desired innovation-driven mode are critical. The ‘innovation team’ needs to define what innovation is in the context of your company, and how to ‘get there’. It must identify the milestones and define the metrics and success criteria across the innovation transformation journey.

    To properly set the innovation strategy, the team must demonstrate deep understanding of the current state of your company, the challenges and business opportunities. The team must be capable of capturing and interpreting market and competition insights, trends and predictions. The team must clearly articulate and communicate the vision, and the strategy to redefine your company as an innovation-driven organization.

  • Provide the innovation framework

    The ‘innovation team’ must identify and provide the right enabling technologies to facilitate day-to-day innovation activities and also to speed up the adoption of the innovation culture. For instance, the team needs to select, adapt and provide ideation and brainstorming tools, platforms to set up programming and ideation challenges like hackathons, ideas processing pipelines, information sharing applications etc.

  • To innovate by example

    Innovation is an exciting and inspiring topic, but if you don’t deliver concrete examples of applied innovation – ideally through success stories – its power will quickly fade out. The ‘innovation team’ must have creative members, engineers and technologists to showcase real innovation, at pace; the team needs to clearly connect the theoretical, abstract notions of innovation with the commercial context of your company; it must demonstrate how innovation can bring concrete commercial results, fast. This is the best way to inspire people and drive high-levels of engagement with the overall innovation initiative.

  • Communicate, Inspire, Diffuse

    Communication in this context is critical: no matter how innovative your team or how efficient the innovation framework is, if the communication is not effective, the innovation initiative is at risk. Proper communication is the way to spread the innovation message and inspire people to join the ‘new way of working’; to prove that innovation creates value for the company, the employees, for the customers and possibly for the society; to diffuse great ideas and change how products are conceived, designed and built.

  • Measure, Assess, Adjust

    The ‘innovation team’ needs to continuously measure and evaluate the progress towards each next milestone of the innovation transformation programme. In case of gaps or ‘surprises’, the team needs to quickly review the assumptions, the involved models, and processes, and make the right decisions in an agile manner- to ensure alignment with the overall strategic innovation plan.

  • Handle the noise, Avoid disruption

    Innovation can generate noise and become disruptive (not only to the market but also to the company). The ‘innovation team’ must prevent the situation where the standard KPIs of the company are exposed to risk due to aggressive, over-ambitious innovation programs or, for example, due to unexpected response to a ‘call to innovate’. The team must handle the noise and be very effective in identifying the signals, that is, the real business opportunities. It must be able to prioritize wisely and communicate in a smooth and effective way.

The synthesis of the team

The size and exact synthesis of the team heavily depend on the industry, the domain of expertise and the size of the corporation. In any case, the ‘innovation team’ needs to be multidisciplinary with the right balance of strategy, execution and communication experts. In the typical case, the team will have some of the following profiles.

Strategists

You need strategic thinking to plan the innovation transformation journey. You need strategists with extensive exposure to innovation programmes and deep understanding of your industry, the competitors, the market dynamics and the state of the art in reference to your domain.

Product experts

You need them to start defining opportunities, innovation themes, and focus areas for your innovation programme; to capture the competition and global developments, identify gaps, overlaps, and opportunities; to make the link with commercial aspects of your business; to think as users and be the voice of your customer.

Technologists

The experts combining deep technical knowledge, best practices and understanding of product architecture, product development lifecycle and innovation methodologies. They should drive initiatives such as the transition to agile engineering practices and modern product development techniques with focus on experimentation and data-driven decision making. In a software context, these could be Senior Architects or Engineers with extensive prototyping and/or agile product development experience.

Programme Managers

Senior management members capable to drive programmes, lead multiple initiatives and manage projects to enable the innovation transformation.

IP experts

Even if intellectual property is not part of your objectives, great opportunities might appear – ones that you cannot afford to miss: as teams ideate, collaborate and experiment with ideas, they might produce novel, high-potential and patentable solutions; the team needs good reflections in spotting patentability and potential competitive advantages.

Real Innovators

The ultimate objective of this programme is to transform the typical employee to a real innovator, creating value for your customers and stakeholders through novel ideas. The best way to achieve this is by example: you need to form a team of innovators to set the example in terms of mentality, behavior, best practices and most importantly, in terms of outcomes. Your ‘innovation team’ needs a core of technologists – a multidisciplinary team able to rapidly execute/ build prototypes, proof of concepts, measure the success and package the results; you need creative people, passionate about delivering novel solutions to challenging problems; risk-takers, self-starters and ambitious professionals with both technical and commercial acumen.

Innovation Advocates

To successfully introduce the innovation mindset, you need a clever and effective communication plan to present the innovation programme itself, particular activities and primarily, innovation success stories. This needs to be driven by passionate and effective communicators – the ones responsible for diffusing the innovation message, communicate progress, achievements, top performers and success stories.

Innovation process experts

These are the specialists in innovation and development frameworks, methodologies and tools. They will educate your teams in agile engineering, rapid prototyping, experimentation, design thinking and related methodologies and practices; they will facilitate and drive workshops, ideation sessions and the practical aspects of day-to-day innovation.

Guest innovators

The scheme must be flexible to allow employees outside the core ‘innovation team’ to join for a certain period of time, based on a rotation scheme. This will maximize the information and expertise sharing and will ensure a smoother transition to the innovation-driven mode. It is a great way to minimise the risk of isolating the innovation team from the rest of the company.

The structure of the innovation team should be flexible and flat: there should be three lines of reference – the strategic, the practical innovation and the communication – all aligned but also with clear separation of concerns and well-defined, independent work streams and programmes.

The challenges

One of the major risks when having a separate ‘innovation team’, is the isolation from the rest of the organization: Innovation teams usually have the benefit of using the latest technologies and safe experimentation/ development environments, without the production and operations-related constraints and challenges. This can lead to a situation where the innovation team is seen, by the rest of the company, as a detached entity working in a sandbox, while all other teams are dealing with real-world business problems and challenges. This is why effective communication, continuous information sharing, innovation by example and rotation schemes are very important when setting up this team.

Another major risk is to disrupt the day-to-day business: the entire system could easily become dysfunctional if employees lose focus and teams get destructed. In another scenario, continuous ideation could generate noise and a long backlog of proposals, which cannot be effectively handled; product development processes could also be destructed from random suggestions or not properly defined business proposals. In any case, the innovation team must ensure the right balance between innovation and ‘business as usual’, by effectively identifying real business opportunities and setting the right focus.

About the Author

George Krasadakis
Guest author, Technology Innovation Leader, Inventor and Product Architect with extensive experience in conceiving, engineering and driving innovative software products and online services to market; founded three technology startups including ‘Datamine decision support systems’; George has filed more than 15 technology patents on data-driven, online concepts related to Personalization, IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Analytics and Content management.

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