Sustaining Innovation in Teams Print E-mail

Planning for Change:  Innovative Organizations and the Cycle of Renewal[1]

Gary Herman

Gradient Coaching

http://www.gradientpath.com

 

Innovation, defined as "the act of introducing something new, useful, and significantly different." has been a principal theme throughout my professional career as a practitioner, team leader, executive, and, now, consultant and coach. Over the years, I've encountered the challenge that innovation poses for organizations, and I've tried to observe (and experiment) to understand why it is so elusive.  Why do some teams succeed at innovation and some do not?  Why do some teams sustain their innovative capacity year after year, while others succeed once and then fade?  Why do some managers of teams achieve success through innovation with team after team, year after year, while others succeed just once, and still others, not at all?  Is this primarily due to luck?  An element of innovation is almost certainly luck, but my experience suggests something more that luck is at work: "Luck is the residue of design."*

As part of my work at the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara, I decided to investigate more formally the nature of innovative teams by drawing from the published literature on management of technology and innovation and by using my own experience and observations from over two decades working in the telecommunications and computer industries. 

The work I'll describe here addresses the challenges facing such teams in the context of the Hudson Institute's "Cycle of Renewal," a model of individual and organizational evolution and renewal that is a core component of HI's approach to individual coaching and organizational development.  I'll map innovation project phases and team competencies typically necessary for innovation to occur onto the phases of the HI model and explore how missing competencies at a critical stage in project evolution can lead a project to fail.  I'll further describe why, even when a team executes an innovative project successfully, the natural tendencies of individuals and groups over time typically result in future team performance (e.g., the ability to repeat success at innovation) that declines as team tenure grows. 

This decline is not inevitable, but long-lived, high-performing, innovative teams do not result from chance alone.  A critical factor separating declining teams from sustaining teams is the ability of the team leadership to understand the critical competencies associated with successful innovation and to institute practices and instill values that counteract the natural tendency toward organizational decay.   In essence, teams for whom innovation (change) is the mission must themselves enforce self-change in order to sustain their innovative vitality over time.

Despite the substantial body of published evidence and analyses that describes the requisites for successful innovation, my experience in industry is that, at least within R&D functions, this knowledge and insight is usually absent in the engineers and scientists who populate management and executive positions.  My hope is that the analyses and approaches described here will help team leaders, consultants, and coaches better understand the contextual dimensions of would-be innovative teams in transition and will assist coaches working with managers and executives toward more effective leadership of innovative teams.



 
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