We are all taught that innovation and creativity increase when there is diversity in team membership. We are told that teams with representatives from different groups and that interchange members frequently will outperform teams that have long-standing members. Yet, leaders intuitively know that familiar teams are more productive and efficient than groups with more fluid memberships.
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What is an Innovation Team?
Innovation teams are groups of individuals seeking a common goal to create a new “something” that brings value to both users and producers. Typically, innovation teams generate new, improved, or enhanced products and services within known markets. Often, new product development (NPD) involves new technologies or new applications; occasionally, NPD means business development to create a new market.
NPD and innovation teams are usually small with membership of six to ten people of various skills. The best NPD teams are cross-functional and involve all the necessary disciplines to transform an idea into a commercial product. Ultimately, success of new products is defined by revenue and sales volume.
Innovation teams do need diversity to be successful, but many companies misinterpret what “team diversity” means. It is not uncommon for uninformed managers to define diversity purely along lines of gender and ethnicity. Team diversity for innovation means creating a team with a wide range of technical experiences, educational backgrounds, and industrial exposure. Again, each function necessary to transform the idea into a realistic product or service must be represented on the team.
Team diversity also means that members have different styles of thinking and working. If everyone on the team – regardless of function – bases decisions on detailed statistical analysis, the emotional needs of customers are neglected. Conversely, if every team member is people-oriented and sympathetic to independent consumer needs, a single product can never be designed for profitability or ease-of-use. This type of diversity goes well beyond skin color or gender identification.
Familiar Teams vs. Changing Members
Robert Huckman and Bradley Staats argue that familiar and intact teams offer advantages to project outcomes in the areas of quality and efficiency (Harvard Business Review, 2013). Familiar teams can predict actions and needs within their membership, and therefore, can outperform teams with frequent changes in membership.
The standard argument against keeping innovation teams intact for lengthy periods is that they would become stale and isolated. Such teams are assumed to have built-in biases and assumptions that prevent them from recognizing new opportunities and from being creative. Instead, familiar teams are better able to identify knowledge gaps and can be more flexible when unexpected project changes emerge.
Your Role as an Innovation Leader
Innovation leaders wear many hats. One is to compose and manage the innovation team. Successful innovation comes from being able to transform ideas into commercial products and services. Profitability derives from getting to market first (or fast) and maintaining market share. Customer satisfaction is built on quality of products and services and customer loyalty is generated when firms release new products that meet their needs.
Designing an NPD team focused on a common purpose (such as commercial success, profitability, and customer satisfaction) requires a leader who can manage diverse team members over the long run. Team member diversity means more about functional experiences and identifying with the customer than race and gender. Successful innovation leaders value cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams that know one another well enough to adapt to change. A continuous focus on the team’s common goals is the most important message a leader sends.
Your Next Steps
Learn more about teams and leadership for innovation in our Innovation Best Practices and NPDP prep courses. Check out the 1Q2020 schedule here. You can also read more about innovation leadership and team development in Chapter 4 of The Innovation ANSWER Book, available from Amazon here. Also, be sure to check out our complimentary webinar on Transitioning from a Technical Role to Management on Friday, 13 December 2019 at noon CST (1 pm EST, 10 am PST). Register here.
I am inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me joy to help you build innovation leaders. Teresa Jurgens-Kowal is an experienced innovation professional with a passion for lifelong learning with a PhD in Chemical Engineering and an MBA in Computer and Information Decision Making. My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or area code 281 + phone 280-8717 for more information on coaching for entrepreneurs and innovators.
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