Sustaining Innovation in Teams Print E-mail

Challenges for Teams in Innovation Projects

Challenges that a team must master to innovate successfully become clear in this model.  A primary challenge is the availability of the correct mix of competencies at the appropriate time in a project lifecycle.  A team must have sufficient capacity in idea generation and gatekeeping to create ideas with sufficient innovative potential to enable success.  Even with an abundance of ideas, a worthy idea may not progress to become the focus of a new project without the capacity for championing - to publicize, sell, and establish committed support for execution of the idea.  Once an idea is adopted as the basis for a project's goals, the team's capability for project leading determines whether, or how well, the idea can be transformed into the set of necessary tasks for its realization.  And, project leading determines, in large part, how well the tasks in that set will be executed.

Well-conceived, well-structured, and satisfactorily executed projects may also struggle.  If they lack the gatekeeping capability to adjust to changes in the external world (requirements, competitive factors, economic climate, new technologies), they fail to adjust appropriately to continue to offer a compelling value proposition.  And, without sponsoring capability to socialize the value of a project and its progress with other parts of the organization, adverse political forces may stymie even a project with great virtues.

In my experience, teams with deficiencies in any of the critical competencies often exhibit one or more symptoms: 

  • they are unable to produce project proposals that are seen to be sufficiently compelling to justify investment in execution;
  • they abound with good ideas but none never seems to progress further;  
  • they struggle to make timely technical progress on committed projects;
  • they are blindsided by seemingly irrational (to the team) organizational decisions outside the team;
  • they happily execute a project only to find that the result has little or no value because it is no longer (or actually never was) relevant and/or valuable. 

Depending on management values and practices in the larger organization, such teams may be disbanded, be increasingly starved for resources, or live on in a chronic state of underachievement.  Members of such teams, either as individuals (if the team is disbanded) or as a group, find themselves in Phase 2 of the Cycle, Out of Sync.

Challenges for Successful Teams

If a team succeeds in moving a project successfully through the stage of project transfer, a common next step would be to attempt a kind of "mini-transition" back into the "project possibilities" stage, so that the project cycle can begin anew.  What are the challenges to sustaining a high level of performance in innovation past a single success, over multiple projects, over the long term?

My personal observations are that a successful team often struggles to sustain its initial level of success.  In fact, empirical studies of technical team performance (Katz and Allen, 2005, and Katz, 2005) show that successful teams do encounter a challenge in sustaining performance over time.  These studies found that team performance typically peaks and then declines, and that a critical variable is the average team tenure (time as a team member, not total work experience) of the employees on the team.  That is, a newly formed team typically demonstrates performance that rises rapidly to a peak between 18 months and two years following team creation.  Performance then tends to decline as average team tenure grows past four years.  In a sense, even if a team is attempting to start new projects and may not exhibit visible signs of employee dissatisfaction, chronic performance decline in a team that needs to be innovative is a classic, if subtle, sign of being Out of Sync.

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