How Small Innovation Teams Hit the Nail

S_I_B-logo2011 hannah-broadway-pictures.blogspotSmall Is Beautiful‘ comes from a collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher, first published in 1973. Championing small organizations, believed to empower people, asserting that ‘people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups’, it strongly contrasts with “bigger is better”.

Does this concept apply to innovation? Whether you look at start-ups fortunes and ‘lean start-up’ approach, spot the ‘2 Pizza team’ practiced by Amazon, or read the analysis by @scottdanthony about the ‘New Corporate Garage’ (‘catalysts using big company resources to develop solutions at global scale), status is clear:  small teams are better to achieve breakthrough innovation.

Can we feature an optimum number for team size? Evan Wittenberg, former Head of Global Leadership Development at Google, states; “It does tend to fall into the 5 to 12 range, and the number 6 has come up a few times.”

Nevertheless smallness is not enough to succeed. How we can enhance the actions of small innovation teams, and support them in their progression is what we are tackling here.

Making innovation team perform better

Rapid Innovation model provides a few hints about boosting innovation teams. Seeking to accelerate innovation pace, it crafts an organizational model based on:

  • Setting-up an agile and autonomous innovation entity;
  • Guiding team through a framework called “creative tension”, a mix of stimulating goals and proven ‘theory and practice’ skills;
  • Aligning ideas and probes with innovation group strategy, across a shared portfolio and permanent cooperation;
  • Shaping deliverables in modular design mold, to unleash collaboration.

Autonomy, guidance, cooperation, modularity are strong tips to help innovation team perform better:

  • Autonomy unlocks motivation: autonomy encloses multifunctional project team concentrating all necessary skills to achieve a functional module (‘feature team’); it’s as well an organizational culture “where people serve their goal” as Gary Hamel expresses it. “To motivate people, providing autonomy does a better job than carrots” adds @danielpink, and @nilofer notes from her experience: “Putting all ideas on the table, and allowing people to have ownership, changes everything”. Agile structure is also more responsive to the unexpected: freed from orthodoxy chain, it starts from actual situation potentialities, leveraging the drivers that show up;
  • Guidance builds confidence: if the mantra ‘Let the team lead the team’ is essential for the team daily life, innovation team shall not be left alone, lost in the desert;  ‘Creative tension’ aims at setting-up a positive tension for creativity: challenging goals (specific time frame, leapfrogging performance,  new market targets) and in parallel,  innovation tools practice (design-thinking, user-lead approach, fast iterative prototyping, ‘rugby line’ progression for knowledge circulation, open innovation, hack day or 20% free time granted at Google and 3M) support the team endeavor. It means ‘Structured Serendipity’, and echoes William Duggan ‘Strategic Intuition’. Innovation is a discipline which you need to teach, practice and share: when composing your team, remember it’s a job for professionals;

Baton hand off during relay race

  • Cooperation culture strengthens legitimacy: innovation is not only a question of conviction: it’s a dialogue, which requires listening before pushing your creative views to the conversation. Capturing the moment where change is needed is delicate: understanding when your company is open to innovation, ‘willing to renew its identity while remaining itself’, will fetch you acknowledgement;
  • Modularity establishes your innovation capital: modular deliverables facilitate acceptance, letting others build value on top of your platform; modularity is a toolbox for design. Actually, even if your innovation fails, modules that you have designed will be reused by other innovation teams, linking innovation teams to one another, activating the intelligence of the many through a living capital.

Scaling up

Assuming our innovation team performs, we might want to scale, pursuing multiple innovation tracks concurrently. How do we achieve consistency, cross fertilization, and overall efficiency in the organization? Innovation portfolio and cooperative governance can help.

‘Balanced, inspired, staffed, dynamic, transparent, scalable’: that’s what your innovation portfolio should look like, as ‘a jewelry case to your innovation project’.

If innovation teams are well set, ‘they won’t feel like employees working for someone else, they will feel much more like belongers as Richard Branson descrives. A savy innovation portfolio is here to infuse a sentiment of ‘belonging’.

Not limited to reflecting a strategic point of view, portfolio is a leadership tool, a clear picture of your intent you can share and build with your teams. It can help each team see where they fit, for example using a simple classification in three kind of initiatives:

  • Disruptive and radical projects are drawing on a “silver bullet” bet, with high reward and risk, significant time and engagement;
  • Quick wins projects, at the opposite, are addressing some concerns of the core company, and demonstrating your capabilities to deliver; they can be limited to functional modules;
  • Probes are illustrating future trends, materialize ideas through demonstrators, support the conversation about new concepts, and will eventually feed the projects pipe.

Once every team finds out its position, how to link teams to one another, and activate the flow of natural communication?

Spotify illustrates a peculiar governance put in place to scale their Agile methodology used for product development. Henrik Kniberg and Anders Ivarsson, Spotify employees, explain how it works. Business is divided into small unit called squad, feeling like a mini-startup: “there are 30 squads, covering 250 people in all in three countries. A squad has a product owner, responsible for prioritizing the work, and collaborating with other product owners to maintain a high level road map document.”

“Related squads are grouped into tribes, behaving as “incubators”. Tribes hold informal gatherings on a regular basis, showing what they are working on, what they have delivered and what others can learn from what they are currently doing. “Tribes interact rarely; for specific projects, synchronization meeting called “scrum of scrums” is set-up on demand.

“For sharing knowledge and creating tools for the benefit of all squads, there are  chapters (similar skills within a tribe) and guilds (community of interest across tribes), the glue that keeps the company together, and raises economies of scale.”

Scaling Agile @spotify

Besides its ingenuity, what I hold from Spotify organization is:

  • Size threshold: governance structures correspond to limited sizes, approx 8 people per squad, less than 100 people in a tribe, to keep them small and agile;
  • Relevance: Spotify doesn’t set structure ‘per se’, it involves meaning for every entity. To be legitimate, governance should flow naturally, and be oriented to support knowledge circulation;
  • Reverse-matrix: compared to traditional matrix where people  are “pooled” together into functional departments, and “assigned” to projects, at Spotify project dimension comes firsts, and is the basis to build stable co-located squads;
  • Healthy tension: “while Product Owner acting as an entrepreneur tends to want to speed up and cut corners, chapter lead or professor tends to want to slow down and build things properly. Both aspects are needed, that’s why it is a “healthy” tension.”

The API metaphor

Heading small innovation teams is somewhat familiar with API design-thinking: it involves meaning, target, expandability, scalability, and innovation ecosystem.

One could think of managing small independent innovation units like processing API: harnessing collaborative innovation, streamlining seamlessly community energies, building a whole connecting functional legos, and initiating new service streams almost instantly by linking.

Credits: hannah-broadway-pictures.blogspot,, corbis,, spotify
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future of TV - Leading by InnovatingNicolas is a senior VP at Orange Innovation Group. Serial innovator, he set-up creative BU with an international challenge, and a focus on new TV experiences. Forward thinker, he completed a thesis on “Rapid Innovation”, implemented successfully at Orange, and further developed at He tweets @nicobry

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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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