Sustaining Innovation in Teams Print E-mail

Management and the Cycle of Renewal

The challenges faced by managers of teams that aspire to be innovative differ depending on the phase of the team on the Cycle of Renewal.  Managers of teams that are Exploring or in the early part of Fully Aligned must ensure that their teams have the human competencies to fill the critical early roles of idea generation and gatekeeping, without losing sight of the longer term needs that will arise for championing, project initiation, and project execution.  This is a delicate balancing act that includes not only insightful staffing and career development choices, but creating appropriately structured rewards and incentives.  "How the critical functions are encouraged and made a conscious part of technology management is probably an organization's single most important area of leverage for maintaining and improving effective innovation" (Roberts et al., p. 250).  My own experience is that managers with an engineering or science background often struggle to acquire and utilize this breadth of perspective, as they tend to retain a value system developed as individual technical specialists (see Badawy, 2004) and may personally over-identify with one of the key roles, to the detriment of the other roles required for the team to succeed over time.

What about mature teams?  Is performance decline inevitable?  No, but management appears to be the critical factor.  In a study of more than 300 R&D project teams, Katz (2004) found that the qualities of team management were the single most important factor separating long term high performing teams from lesser performers.

Managers of more mature teams do face an additional set of challenges in preventing or recovering from the performance decline characteristic of long-tenure teams.  Not only do these managers need to retain (or understand how to obtain) the full set of competencies to initiate a new innovation project (with the issues of team values and rewards that follow), they must also take steps to counteract the negative effects of socialization that lead to insularity and resistance to new ideas.  Katz's findings support this view.  Managers of high performing teams were characteristically not "participative" managers, but were "extremely demanding" and "challenging... to perform in new ways and directions" (p. 169).

The particular challenge here, if the team has a long history and the manager is newly arrived, is that the manager must first overcome the very phenomenon he or she needs to change (resistance) in order to subsequently change it.  In this regard, the models and techniques of Maurer (1996) apply.  And, interventions like the Hudson Institute's "Planning for Change: Renewing Team Focus & Energy" workshop should be of value.

With a long-term, cyclical view of innovative teams in mind, a range of options is available for managers to cultivate and sustain the competencies and culture required to enable sustained performance in innovative teams.  These include:

  • Communications practices that promote intra-team and extra-team communications, including identifying, encouraging, and rewarding "gatekeeper" roles within the team.
  • Reward systems that avoid over optimization in the short term and encourage diversity of contribution as well as long term thinking.
  • Joint activities with critical groups outside of the team, including functions like Marketing or perhaps customers themselves.
  • Recruiting that consciously seeks to maintain diversity (role, discipline, ethnicity, professional background, work style), so as to maintain a robust "gene pool" within the team itself.
  • Systematically introduced "mini-transitions" at the individual employee or sub-team level that facilitate staff development, that require new supervisor/subordinate and peer relationships, that place employees into new roles, and that encourage informal inter-team communications using personal relationships.  By consciously introducing diversity and change, managers can develop the team's ability not only to cope with change, but also to embrace change as a requisite for team and career vitality. 

This last point, that voluntarily-introduced change is invigorating and constructive, as opposed to disruptive and harmful, has generally been counter-intuitive to managers and staff in most of the engineering work cultures that I've experienced.  The prevailing belief was usually that stability is to be highly prized because it leads to maximum organizational efficiency (and, it avoids the need to confront resistance!).  In these cultures, supervisor-subordinate relationships were long-lasting, and team tenures also tended to be very long.  Change occurred only in reaction to uncontrollable events or some otherwise intractable management dilemma.  Since change was uncommon, and usually resisted, it was, in fact, disruptive when it finally occurred.


A fundamental challenge in the management of innovative teams is for managers to simultaneously balance two kinds of demands.  Certainly, they must attend to the near term challenge of efficiency and predictability of performance for their project and team in the short term.  However, they must simultaneously recognize and anticipate long term project needs and team dynamics, and make and sustain the organizational investments and adjustments they know are necessary for the long term health and success of the team.  Only organizations with a management culture that values balanced attention to the opposing forces of efficiency and robustness, of predictability and risk, of stability and change, will be those who can sustain innovation over time.

 "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."#


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