3 tips: How to create an innovation group

Introducing an innovation team to your organization? To ensure success, consider the three tips below.

Tips for how to become a project manager

Innovation is decidedly in, with executives looking to not only spot the next wave of innovation but create the culture and organizational tools to bring it to life in their organizations. On the surface, driving innovation seems like a fairly easy task, consisting of little more than putting some people in a room and christening them "the Innovation Team," ideally with a catchy name and flowery email announcements.

In the long run, however, this approach usually results in just another project team that ultimately becomes absorbed back into the organization, with people wondering "whatever happened to that innovation team" a few short months later. Putting people together and saying the equivalent of "Now go and innovate" is unlikely to be successful.

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Consider these three tips

If you're thinking of setting up an innovation team, or have one that's not delivering much in the way of innovation, consider the following tips:

1. Innovation is not business as usual

It may seem blindly obvious, but aside from a flashy logo and special conference room, many companies run their innovation group like any other project team that's subject to typical organizational governance structures like gate reviews or oversight by a single group within the organization, for example having the innovation team report directly to a single functional or business leader. True innovation requires different reporting structures, budgeting processes, and team structures.

As you establish an innovation group, let its goals drive how you establish the supporting structure, rather than forcing your traditional organizational structures on a group that's meant to do something new and different.

Is your innovation team meant to drive complex projects and problems toward a solution? Is it meant to research early-stage initiatives and conduct experiments to determine if it's relevant? Is it designed to create new lines of business for the organization? Each of these cases requires a different relationship to the rest of the organization, and getting these areas wrong will quickly result in your innovation group turning into yet another project team that will be no more or less successful than past project teams.

2. High performers aren't always right for your innovation group

There is often a desire to use an innovation group as an advancement tool for high performing staff. After all, who better to drive innovation than a high performer, and what better way to reward that same high performer than give them an opportunity to innovate? This is exactly the wrong way to think about staffing your innovation group.

You are likely targeting some form of different results than what your organization is typically able to produce, a core tenet of innovation. Those who are best equipped to perform in your existing organization are likely to become frustrated and struggle in a group where the rules of the game are different.

True innovation can be a messy process, with unclear goals and objectives that shift on a seemingly daily basis. The tools of the trade are likely different than what works well in an operational environment. For example, structure and detailed planning are exactly what you need for launching a technology project, but can be stifling when trying to create a new service offering for your customers.

Instead, look for people who are comfortable in unfamiliar environments and have a track record of working in different roles and collaborating across different groups within your company. Ideally, you should allow staff to opt-in to the innovation group, providing them with a frank description of what's expected and how it will be different, and allowing them to express interest versus nominating high performers whose historical performance may actually be a detriment in an innovation group.

3. Avoid the project factory

One of the biggest risks to the long-term success of an innovation group is allowing an early success to turn the innovation group into the solution for every problem. Many innovation groups have great people, access to key decision makers, and appropriate funding, and are also able to capture some early wins that get positive attention from the rest of the organization. Suddenly, everyone wants to put their pet project into the innovation group. Just because a project is interesting and compelling doesn't mean it's right for your innovation group.

Create a well-defined governance process for what kinds of projects enter the innovation group, and how you transition a project out of the group once it's mature enough to return to the organization. If you don't help the organization understand what the innovation group is and isn't, it will quickly get overwhelmed with projects that don't leverage its unique capabilities, and ultimately render the group ineffective.

There are real and obvious benefits to innovation, but it also seems different and fun, making it surprisingly easy to get organizational buy-in to start an innovation group. While the trimmings and trappings of such a group are easy, the structure and diligence to start, grow, and maintain an innovation function require significant care and foresight.

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