7 tips for successfully leading an innovation team

7 tips for successfully leading an innovation team

All organizations have project managers. They’re usually great in what they do, and if they have a project, the general concept is that it must get done and can never be canceled. That’s actually is the problem. Even if they’re the best project managers, they don’t always understand the company strategy and see what’s best for the company. Sometimes a project may not be in the best interests of the organization and as a leader in your organization, at some point, you’ll have to say, it’s hard, it’s something we don’t want to do, but we need to cancel that project. It’s hard to make the decision to stop a project, but some projects are at a point they might have to be stopped.You can’t be afraid to abort projects if they don’t work as planned or the company focus has changed. You need to take care of the people and reallocate them somewhere else. These will turn the focus and your most essential resources, people, from projects with a minimal possibility for success to projects with a significant change to succeed.Now, another thing you should keep in mind is the language that’s being used inside the organization.

Is it a project or a test?

I’ve worked with organizations that worked in a way that if something was a project, it was going to get done, no matter what. On the other hand, if it was a pilot or concept test, then it’s ok to stop it. It’s ok to test some concepts and if it didn’t work, stop and try a different concept. I think it’s just a language barrier. They can use the exact tools, methodologies, resources, everything the same, but if they call it a project than it must get done. So maybe it’s just better to call an early-stage project a pilot or concept test.

Your innovation structure

You should make sure that you have the right structure to support innovation, to make sure it’s easy to see resources, to see people, to see things. Make sure your innovation team has a proper space, physically and conceptually. Make sure they have the freedom to test and play with ideas and the autonomy to make decisions. You, as innovation manager, should protect your team from the outside world if you want to keep innovation going in your organization.

Support your innovators

Your job is not to innovate. You need to support innovation and support your innovators. It’s still your responsibility (so don’t blame others for not innovating) to keep innovation going, but not to innovate.
You should make sure you have the resources, provide them with the right processes suitable for your organization, provide tools, remove constraints, provide motivation and encouragement, facilitate the process, update them on the company strategy and provide relevant information to give the right innovation. You can outsource some of these services, especially when you to run a dedicated process to resolve specific problems, but keep managing and controlling the overall picture.
As long as you’re giving them all they need to keep innovation going, and develop the right processes, and help them when required, then you’re doing your job. Remember, it’s not a one person job, everyone in the organization can innovate and make your organization better.
Innovators are creative people. It’s true that you have tools to get creativity out of people, but not everyone can be creative. Many organization asks everyone to “think out of the box” and be creative and later bomb them with forms, processes, and meetings to pitch their idea. You want creative people to do creative work, and it is your job to buffer the creative people from the organization dirty politics, the parts of the organization that sense something foreign is going on and come in and try to kill that thing.

  • Help remove constraintsand let innovators innovate
  • Provide motivation, encourageand prove that the organization is serious
  • Provide advocates to help peoplefind where to go to pitch their ideas

On the other side, you have to work with the organization management to make sure they support innovation. It could be resources, understanding, and tools. The organization top management should also support the innovators and be advocates and be a focal point to listen to the innovators’ pitches/ideas. Innovators from every part of the organization should know where to pitch their idea, where to go with different types of ideas. In parallel, you should also have supporting process and tools (link to innovation tools article) to support this. Everyone in the organization should be able to raise problems, suggest great ideas, and you should have a process to monitor, filter, score and execute what’s relevant to the company vision and strategy. I suggest that your dedicated team of innovator will review each idea and have the ability to test it, understand the idea and its potential value for the organization.

Reward failure and success equally, but punish inaction

As Bob Sutton says, “reward failure and success equally, but what you want to punish is inaction.” It’s true that no action means no innovation, but it goes the same for failure. No failure also means no innovation. You can’t get it right every time, but you have to keep trying.
You should make sure that people can easily think innovation and feel free to suggest ideas, even if they’re not the best and can’t really work. You must reward them for trying, either the idea was the best idea you’ve ever heard, or if it was a good idea but know the best one for the organization at the moment.
The worst thing you can do is punish for bad ideas. You should only “punish” and push forward people for not trying, for not taking action. Otherwise, you’re encouraging people to just sit and do the minimum for their job.


It’s ok it didn’t work out,

let re-think how we can make it work

Time, Money, People

You must figure out how to divide your resources between the different projects. Your resources are money, time, and most important, people. Make sure to think about how you put these things in relationship to each other and how you can disaggregate the projects and task in a way that allows you and your team to move forward. Depending on the project stage, you should decide if it’s better for each one to work independently or seat together as a group.

Intervene before it's too late

Another problem you might face is errant people or even groups. Sometimes it could be one person, who’s just causing the group to function poorly. That’s the point you need to intervene. It’s a hard thing to do, but if the group is going badly, someone has to stop them or else it’s just going to be way more difficult. In case you identify it on time, before groups go errant is to use team contract. Team contract can and should be put in place at the beginning of each project. Put your team together and draft out what they’re going to do, and how are they going to do this together. It could be simple things like how will we run meetings? Will we show up on time? How do we do discussions? How do we make decisions, especially when we have disagreements? Place this agreement on the wall and have everyone sign it.You’ll probably get responses like: it’s a waste of time, I’m too experienced to for that”, this is so infantile, I can’t believe you’re making us do this and so on. As you already know, if teams get into arguments, they will line up outside your office so give it a try. It works! It causes the team to resolve issues themselves.

Building innovative organization

Trying to sum things up, building innovation supporting organizations and managing creative people is a hard but rewarding job. You, as an innovation manager has a massive influence on the organization strategy and future.If you have more tips on how to manage innovation teams, please contact me or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Here are some myths about managing innovation:

Creativity can only come from creative types

Money motivates creativity

Innovation should be done only by R&D

Competition beats collaboration

Time pressure fuels creativity

You can't routinely innovate

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