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December 12th, 2017

Custom Design Teams for Innovation

“When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” — Ethiopian Proverb

We all know the link between teamwork and innovation. But just having teams is not enough. How you design your teams is crucial. You need the right mix of innovation techniques and players based on a team’s specific focus. And you should design the network connecting teams and the link between team purpose and corporate mission. Through 30 years of designing new, innovative products I’ve learned some pointers to designing first-class creative teams. Here are a few.

1. For Product Innovation—Build a Network of Specialized Teams

If innovation is your goal, set up separate teams for advanced concepts, new product development, and current product maintenance. No one team can do it all—and if you try to use only one team, the innovation is what suffers. Small- to mid-size manufacturers may find this challenging. If so, don’t hesitate to use outside resources to augment internal teams. At a minimum, establish two teams, separating new product development from current products. But the “ideal” innovation network includes these four teams:

INNOVATION COUNCIL (senior level, cross functional, and cross divisional)

SPX, the industrial equipment manufacturer, has an executive level innovation council that spans functions and divisions. The council’s role is to communicate the innovation mission of the organization, coach innovation methods, and stimulate innovation plans within the divisions.

ADVANCED CONCEPT TEAM (products 5+ years out)

The best innovators distinguish their advanced concepts team from new product development (NPD). This gives the concept team freedom to think outside the box and explore potentially disruptive innovations. But neither team works in a vacuum—ideas and methods are shared between teams—and when the network operates smoothly, the best concepts from the Advanced Team are brought to fruition by the NPD team.

NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT TEAM (products for introduction in 1-2 years)

These teams require the broadest set of people including skills like user insights, design, engineering, sourcing, manufacturing, and marketing. Fairfield Medical, a small but successful manufacturer of hospital equipment, took the important step of separating its product maintenance from its NPD. Being a small privately-owned company made the move difficult and required investing in outside resources. We were honored to be chosen, and the result was a highly innovative, patented product that positioned them for sale to a larger company, which was the goal of the owners.

MAINTENANCE & CUSTOM PRODUCTS TEAM (products launching within 1 month to 1 year)

Herman Miller had long established its Advanced Concepts and NPD teams. But they lacked a team dedicated to custom products until they established the Tailored Products Team to work with large customers on solutions to specialized needs for production quickly and in low volume.

2. For Creative Teams—Alternate Between Collaboration and Concentration

For creative teams of all types—new products and new brands—learn how your team members work best to understand where people fit within the continuum of concentration and collaboration. Collaboration in the form of group ideation (aka brainstorming) should be alternated with time alone  ideation (concentration). The intentional back and forth between collaboration and concentration unleashes the best creative thought.

Sometimes collaboration / concentration is better in twos—two creative people competing for the most compelling ideas. Sometimes it’s better in larger groups—where shared ideas can inspire other ideas. And sometimes it’s best individually—where deep thought can can be applied to a thorny problem. At BOLTGROUP we do all three, and we do it with people from varied backgrounds to add spice to the idea soup.

3. For Customer Insights Create a Cross-Functional, Boots-on-the-Ground Team

Key to innovation are teams dedicated to user empathy and insight gathering. To supercharge the output of your insights team, make it cross-functional. We recently conducted a nationwide ethnographic user study in a particular product category. Marketing, engineering, and design personnel from our client joined our research team. Through their first-hand participation, these individuals gained more immediate and deeper empathy with end users than if they’d merely viewed our research videos and reports. And a sense of ownership of the research insights, shared across all company departments, made it easier to act on the insights we gathered.

4. For All Teams—Consider These Principles:

For all innovation teams, a few principles are proven to enhance results:

  • Establish shared purpose, language, and strategic goals. This includes your innovation lexicon in the form of a published glossary to clarify the words you use around innovation (see more about A Common Language of Innovation here).
  • Mix perspectives, roles, and backgrounds of team members to foster connections between seemingly unrelated things.
  • Share ideas and processes between the teams and across the organization.
  • Build advisors, advocates, and champions for corporate buy-in of the team’s mission and activities. Without buy-in, your team’s best innovation will never be realized.
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