As engineering, project, and product managers, we often struggle with identifying the right people for innovation teams. Of course, there is a need to match skill sets with the required deliverables of the project. There is also a need to match the organizational structure with the level risk acceptance for radical innovation.
Safi Bahcall presented an interesting theory on organizational structure for innovation (Harvard Business Review, Mar/Apr 2019). He argues that organizational risk tolerance for radical innovation is a direct function of project skill fit relative to return on politics. Let’s look at these variables a bit more.
Project Skill Fit
All innovation team members have choices to make on how they will spend their time. Should they invest in design and experimentation or should they invest time in promoting the idea to an influential manager? When the technical investment pays off the most, the team members will spend their time working out new technologies.
To increase innovativeness in an organization, you must accept some risks and encourage innovation teams to learn. Learning comes through experimentation. High project skill fit occurs when employees are stretched to learn – but not stretched too far and not too little. If a staff member feels his skills are not good enough to technically support the project, he will spend his time “politicking”. When team members are more vested in building their personal reputations with bosses, the risk tolerance for the organization drops precipitously.
Return on Politics
Another factor that drives radical innovation is the span of management control. If there are lots of levels for advancement and salary increases are significant for each promotion, an employee will spend her time on self-promoting politics. A big raise is valued more by individuals than generating project outcomes in this case.
Flattening the organizational hierarchy helps to reduce the “return on politics”. Moreover, as Bahcall notes in his HBR paper, decreasing the hierarchy of an organization increases the opportunities for collaboration across functions. Multi-disciplinary teams have the highest rates of success with innovative product development.
Overcoming Organizational Barriers to Innovation
To overcome structural barriers to innovation, organizations must encourage reasonable risk-taking and experimentation. Organizational reward systems, including non-financial recognition, can encourage team members to focus more on project outcomes than politics. Consider rewarding innovation team members with opportunities to present their research to senior management or peers at international conferences. (Incidentally, I have presented at several different conferences in the past year with the virtual environment expanding our opportunities for presentations. Check out my speaking page here – I’d love to present to your group.)
Another way to overcome structural barriers in organizations is to provide training. Training has multiple benefits for innovation teams. First, training creates opportunities to enhance cross-industry knowledge so team members generate more ideas. Next, people want to practice what they’ve learned; thus, increasing the focus on project outcomes over politics. Finally, training helps keep staff sharp with their technical skills.
How Do You Select Innovation Team Members?
One key conclusion from Bahcall’s work is that innovation team member selection cannot be “gut feel”. He recommends neutral assessments by third parties to identify project skill fit, for instance. A great tool that can be used for identifying project skill fit is the Team Dimensions assessment. Team Dimensions can help you identify skill matches between jobs and project personnel. You can read about Team Dimensions here and listen to my podcast interview on Team Dimensions here. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] and we can develop a plan for your team to use this versatile assessment.
After you complete an assessment of team members and encourage an emphasis on project outcomes over company politics, you will want to continue developing your teams for effective innovation. One place to start is New Product Development (NPD) Fundamentals. Join me for one or all four short courses to establish innovation best practices in your organization. Learn more and register here. We are offering NPD Fundamentals at a bargain basement price because we are passionate that innovation gets a great start in 2021!
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