Innovation as a Collective Adventure

Why don’t teams work?

“Why team don’t work”, an HBR interview with J. Richard Hackman by Diane Coutu, is a great and surprising article on team work: while everyone takes team work for granted, researches from Professor Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University, show that “most of the time, team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing“.

“Getting agreement is the leader’s job, and the team leader must be willing to take great personal and professional risks to set the team’s direction.”

In brief, Professor Hackman also points out that:

  • teams underperform often their great creative and productive potential;
  • teams need to be set up carefully to ensure they have a compelling direction;
  • small teams whose memebers stay together for long periods of time perform best;
  • leading a team requires enormous courage because authority is always involved, which arouses great anxiety in team; great team leaders often encouter resistance so intense it can put their jobs at risk”.

Let’s make the whole more than the sum of its parts

Conversely what we want to achieve is Confucius mantra, a greater whole than the sum of its parts, and to use the team as a leverage for innovation.

So let’s assume you’re the team leader, and go through some dimensions that will help you glue together the team work.

1. Belief

A team will gather around a shared vision, which is a foundation for your innovation; so the very beginning is to express your belief or the metaphor for the innovation you want to raise: innovation is design, it requires a clear intent, before translating concept in a simple and elegant realization. For example, in the Silicon Valley, there is an apiration to make the world a better place with their innovation, others want to solve a specific problem they’ve been facing for years, a few “think different”…

Clearworks - Customers, Connections, Clarity

You don’t have to build this alone like an hermit: for our Smart TV design, the key principle of Openness (TV experience opening doors to Internet content & services) came in the early days of our team work. For our social TV work, we picked up “Social Belief“, meaning that social conversations around TV are not just noise, but, if well collected and filtered, they can help your content discovery.

2. People

Brainstorming about a belief featuring your innovation target is fun! In my experience, setting-up the team is the most difficult part. A friend of mine at HEC told me: if you really want to know if you’re going to get along with this person, have lunch with him and see if you get bored! Bottom line: recruiting successfully takes time. That’s why they spend substantial time on recruitment at Ideo or Google.

The paradox is that you’re in an innovation hurry: control the haste is then your first resistance act as team leader.

You need the right skills to go the long innovation way: you have to select the best in a range of functions: idea generator, designer, engineer, user observer-sociologist, market watcher, product marketing, … Each of them should show an ability to listen and debate, collect ideas from each other (for immediate use or kept on the shelf to use later), take risks, test new things, call into question established systems (what Professor Hackman calls “deviant thinking, opening up more ideas, getting more originality”).

Tim Brown calls them T-shaped people. If regular involvement of all team members in debate is necessary, it’s not always a natural movement for everyone, especially for expert engineers not used to speak up: help them by fostering attention when they express.

Harnessing collective intelligence is what you want, it involves the customer as well. “Support and feedback is what our customers are telling us, product is what we’re telling our customers, presenting one cohesive story to the world” spots Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey. Switching from monologue to dialogue with customer is an uneasy thing the team will have to complete as a whole. Help your team to value customer feedback as a lever to rebound on innovative items.

You know you have succeeded when team members start spontaneously sharing views in meeting, out of their traditional role’s boundary. Last time I saw this was when everyone was excited to discuss about the logo of our social TV service, Blended TV!

You may benefit from starting with a small number of people to build a core team. Moreover, big teams over double digits “usually wind up wasting everybody’s time”.

While your team need stability so people get “comfortable and familiar with one another”, you might want to adapt team composition overtime, when approaching the marketplace: marketing processes, brand, or commercial launch of a product or service will have more importance. One thing that really paid off in one TV service I developed was to have all functions involved from the start, including sales and customer service. Those people acted as a regular link with the customer and retails shops, very precious at the early stage and along the process. Their involvement was light at the beginning, just expressing their feeling as market representatives, and it became more important as they had to anticipate market launch, and eventually the hand over of the project when product got running.

Bringing together a “dream team” of talent to participate in the innovation project is one of the most difficult task. Like in innovation, failure is part of the game, and player can be replaced as in any sport game. No need to make someone guilty, complete substitution in due course. Try to learn fast, what kind of people you fit with, and share a common innovation timing.

3. Framework

A framework for the team work is something quite well known: first of all, “team must be bounded, with explicit membership” as highlights Professor Hackman; you need then to provide a clear organization of tasks and responsibilities, set-up stretched goals to electrify team motivation, help narrowing the scope to avoid depressing hesitation, handle launch and regular follow-up meetings, and arbitrate conflicts with no delay: a latent conflict is some sure innovation killer.

Consistency and cohesion are the two legs of your innovation team: every one shall have the same fight, designers and developers …, everyone shall understand how it makes sense with regards to the innovation belief.

I have put it in other words in “creative tension is good for you!” talking about knowledge circulation as the key indicator of a good team framework.

4. Environment of trust

Innovation team needs protection. While providing the team with appropriate distance from mainstream operations and issues, it requires headquarter manager to be humble, to slightly set back as well.

Osman Can Ozcanli speaks about “in vitro method“, consisting in finding innovative and autonomous people, and letting them free in a flexible framework.

He gives a few fruitful tips:

  • “Tell them you want them to innovate, give them a budget and some direction to work with, and let them experiment.
  • Help them select a product concept that is in line with your family of products.
  • Don’t get in their way, just finance them.
  • Let them own the vision for their product, but give them deadlines.”

I would add: use your license to kill without sorrow, celebrate failure, and learn fast!

5. Leadership

Last but not least, your role as a team leader is the cement for the process to flow effectively and harmoniously.

I believe in a leader that helps co leaders to raise, that ask team members to develop their autonomy, give them a framework to develop their growth and learning, empower people, and let the people find what is meaningful for them.

This leader acts as an orchestra conductor, he provides inspiration as the stakeholder of the belief: thus he doesn’t hesitate to arbitrate and keep the focus.

I like the way Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey puts it: “I think every leader in any company is an editor. Taking all of these ideas and you’re editing them down to one cohesive story, and in my case, my job is to edit the team, so we have a great team that can produce the great work and that means bringing people on and in some cases having to let people go.”


Innovation is definitely a collective adventure, which makes it so rewarding.

Because people are never more involved that when sharing your belief and finding in it a personal drift, a path to develop one’s own worth, our goal would be to make the best of collective and personal expectations in “an organization where people serve their goal” as Gary Hamel expresses it.

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Nicolas BryNicolas Bry is a Senior VP at Orange. He developed a strong experience in innovation management, creating digital business units with international challenge, and completed a professional thesis on rapid innovation at HEC Business School.

Nicolas Bry

Serial innovator, Nicolas has set up creative units for new business at Orange, Club-Internet, and SFR. Nicolas created crowd platform, Orange Studio for Intrapreneurs, and edits Open Innovation blog International speaker, entrepreneurs & startups coach, innovation teacher at Telecom ParisTech, HEC & CentraleSupélec, and freelance consultant (ECC). Follow him at @nicobry.




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No Comments

  1. Norbert Herman on August 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post Nicolas and I liked the way you framed the concept of innovation as a “Collective Adventure”. The complex phrase of “effective communication” seems to be at the heart of successful innovation with collective input and I posted a brief summary on what I find to be a pragmatic solution to enabling collective innovation –

    I’d be interested to hear your feedback on this approach in terms of its benefits to implementing collective innovation.

  2. Bry on August 18, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Innovation and the reality of work: the business model canvas seems interesting though I do not see a competitive differentiation part to qualify the innovation.
    Moreoever I believe innovation needs people to be inspired to start moving and cooperate, and for this I think a “belief” is a powerful level that complements a business plan. I like to think that “People don’t buy what you do they buy what you believe” (Simon Sinek, “How great leaders inspire action”)

  3. Janice Maffei on September 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Regardless of what you say, your team quickly knows what you really believe by the small and big choices made in the day to day. Powerful concepts here, well delivered.

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