Innovation and ‘temporary’ high performance teams

I was recently engaged by a client to run a series of workshops that brought together a dozen or so of the brightest of minds at the sharp end of the nuclear decommissioning industry. The purpose of the series of workshops was to challenge the current design for a new waste processing plant and to generate new, innovative ways to carry out the making safe of a substantial amount of highly toxic waste.

The first workshop involved a tour of the proposed facility, followed by a session to set the scene for the challenge team. During this initial session, a guest proposed his concern that the size of the team and the nature of the challenge would make it difficult for the group to become a High Performing Team (HPT). Based upon previous experience I had immediate misgivings and have pondered upon this for some time since. I now believe it is undoubtedly possible to create ‘temporary’ High Performance Teams that can quickly be up and running and upon reflection this accounts for a vast majority of the work that I currently undertake.

In 1965 it was Bruce Tuckman who first proposed the popular ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. He maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results. All of which are required in the workshops that I run.

I actually wholly support Bruce Tuckman’s model and have worked with it with clients on numerous occasions. However, for the aforementioned challenge team, time constraints meant that there simply wasn’t time for the team to develop through the four stages. I would actually argue that for the purpose for which the team was created, it was not necessary for them to be a High Performance Team in the pure sense of the term. Their purpose was to come together on a number of occasions to think/work effectively and productively in order to develop some powerful ideas/concepts that would help solve some really tough challenges.

Albeit the challenge team would still have to face up to challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work and deliver results.

The big question is how do you successfully manage to get an unfamiliar team to demonstrate the characteristics of a High Performance Team with ease and on demand? Broadly speaking there are three parts to the answer.

Firstly, the identification and buy in to the behavioral aspects that will enable this team to meet and think as efficiently and productively as possible is essential (most of these are common sense but often not common practice). By asking the team to identify the behaviors for themselves that will both help and hinder efficiency and productivity and making these explicit, buy in is typically easy to achieve and the adherence to these behaviors is easier to manage. The helping behaviors are acceptable and encouraged and the hindering behaviors are unacceptable and banned. Simple.

Secondly, the application of productive and efficient systematic approaches to thinking, idea generation and problem solving is equally essential.

Thirdly, the team needs to be well facilitated to keep thing on track and there is much to consider here. Amongst other things it is essential that the facilitator ensures:

  • There is a clear and inspirational vision for the team
  • Adherence to the behavioral aspects
  • A clear and understood focus at all times
  • The effective selection and application of systematic tools and processes to maximize idea/concept output and/or solutions to problems
  • Thinking is complimentary as opposed to adversarial
  • Everyone contributes
  • Decisions are by consensus
  • Roles and responsibilities are understood
  • The management of time
  • ALL output is captured
  • The effective selection and prioritisation of ideas/concepts and solutions

In my experience, by following the above guidelines it becomes easy for a team to display the characteristics of a High Performance Team, albeit on a temporary basis.

If you would like to find out more, please do get in touch.

Innovation – more action, less of the word

Innovation is a term that has become so widely used. We hear it on the television, we read about it in newspapers and trade press, our MD or CEO are calling for more of it. In fact, the more you hear about it, the more you have to question the reason as to why it has become such a common term (other than it’s perceived as good for business and UK plc as a whole).

Other reasons might include:

  • It is seen as a critical asset in today’s competitive market
  • The value of innovation is being felt therefore, let’s have more of it
  • Senior management want it but aren’t getting it and therefore they have to keep asking for it
  • It’s become a buzz word whose meaning is being lost in the plethora of references to it
  • Maybe organisations are genuinely desperate for it but fail to understand how to enable innovation other than to hire greater expertise or make efforts to manage the innovation process (which of course makes sense)

I suspect all of the above have a part to play. Irrespective of the reasons, it is a term we frequently hear and are likely to do so for a very long time to come because of the obvious value of it.

If you were asked the question “what is innovation”, how would you answer?

Maybe you see it as the development of new products and services or perhaps using technologies in new ways. You may answer that innovation is something R&D come up with or even that it is about finding new ways to tackle problems.

Again, I suspect that all the above are relevant answers and there are bound to be more although I equally suspect that there will be differing views on this adding to the ‘fuzzy’ nature of the term.

Innovation to me is quite simple. It is developing new products, services, processes and systems that solve real problems and/or meet the requirements of customers and markets so that additional benefits are delivered over and above those that can already be realised. It is also applying new and existing technologies in new ways that similarly deliver additional benefits.

Another somewhat useful question to answer is rather than ‘what is innovation’ how about ‘how do we innovate’? This, to me, is a somewhat more interesting question which may lead us back to the beginning and provide some answers as to why we hear the term so frequently.

The ‘how do we innovate’ bit is a little trickier to deal with because one of the critical parts of innovation (creativity and idea generation) is often down to a wide range of factors that include chance, opportunity, inspiration, genius, dogged determination, coincidence, accident and more. It is because of these many and varied ingredients that it is difficult for many to see how this essential part of the innovation cycle can be ‘managed’ or significantly improved, adding further to the ‘fuzziness’.

Whilst there is a lot of emphasis these days on managing innovation processes, one would have to question the value of this unless the creativity and idea generation element is also harnessed in a way that will lead to higher volumes of higher quality ideas. After all, innovation relies entirely upon this for its quality. This suggests that whilst we can introduce efficiencies into our innovation processes through better management, the quality of innovation is unlikely to be greatly affected.

Perhaps then, this is the reason that we hear the frequent call for innovation. Maybe it is because whilst there are efforts being made towards fostering innovation through improved processes and the management of those processes, improvements in innovation are still not matching expectations or desired levels.

The good news is that there are established and proven systematic tools and processes that will significantly increase the volume and quality ideas. If we were to focus more on these, the quality of innovation would in turn significantly increase.

Perhaps we would then see more innovation and hear less of the word.

Do get in touch if you feel your organisation could benefit from significantly increased levels of great ideas.

Systematic Innovation – The Book

Book Cover

Systematic Innovation, my new book, is now published and will be available from next week.

The purpose of the book is to bring together in one step-by-step guide a powerful suite of systematic tools and processes that make innovation happen.

Based upon years of development and refinement, the systematic approaches have been successfully applied and have helped clients develop new products and services, solve tough and complex problems (often those of a highly technical nature) and innovate.

Innovation is a process.  It can be learnt and easily applied and this book will show you how.

The chapters include:

Behavioural Science – an exploration of the suppressants that restrict our ability to generate ideas and concepts, solve problems and innovate. These include individual and group thinking issues.

Leadership and management of innovation – explores the significance that effective leadership and management has on innovation. It will either encourage innovation and allow it to flourish or create an environment where it will wither on the vine.

Systematic innovation (the process) – a look at the innovation process from start to finish that if followed, guarantees success.

The innovation pipeline – this is a great framework for helping to manage your innovation flow. It is comprised of seven segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities and can be populated by products and services at various stages of their development and lifecycle.

Problem or design definition – defining problems correctly is essential if we are to develop truly effective solutions. Similarly, if we are designing something, we need to be clear about what that something is before we make a start. In both scenarios it is also important to understand peripheral information such as context, constraints, barriers etc. The book explores all the above and more.

Systematic thinking tools and processes – this provides a wide and varied collection of systematic thinking tools and processes that when applied enable the generation of high volumes of ideas, concepts and solutions.

Selection and prioritisation – this includes my favoured and most commonly applied approaches to selection and prioritisation of ideas and solutions.

Implementation – approaches to ensure that we successfully implement our chosen ideas and solutions.

Measure, monitor, review and feedback – it is essential that we know how we are doing and this chapter is all about what and how to effectively measure, monitor, review and feedback (MMRF).

Systematic approaches (quick guides) – these are a handy reference to remind you of the key steps to the systematic approaches.

Innovation is not just about developing new products and technologies, we can benefit from innovation in just about everything we do and the systematic approaches described in the book have been applied to many different focusses.

These powerful approaches will enable you to:

  • Generate high volumes of ideas and concepts on demand
  • Solve the toughest of problems
  • Innovate
  • Manage individual and group thinking
  • Make meetings more productive
  • Lead and manage ‘innovation’
  • Develop new products and services
  • Improve processes
  • Engineer value
  • Select and prioritise your best ideas and concepts

Systematic Innovation will soon be available through Amazon but if you are interested in receiving a copy straight away, please do contact me and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.

Innovations weakest link?

Our experience has been that for many organisations the weakest part of their product/service development and/or problem solving processes is the ability to generate sufficient volumes of quality ideas and concepts. This is potentially the result of the many individual, group and leadership behaviours that suppress our ability to generate ideas (see previous blogs).

This is supported by some research ‘Trends in Concept Design’ conducted by PTC (a leading provider of technology solutions) in which respondents were asked to quote the average number of design alternatives explored during the concept design stage when developing new products. The most frequent response was 3.

When asked to respond to the statement “We would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design”, 92% agreed.

This clearly highlights the need for more emphasis to be placed on the development of ideas and concepts earlier in the innovation process.

We also know from experience that the application of systematic thinking tools and processes deliver instant results in terms of increasing the number of quality ideas and concepts produced. To highlight this, a client recently found four workable solutions within three hours to a difficult technical problem that a team of eight engineers had been focussed on (and perplexed by) for six months by simply applying two of the numerous tools and processes that exist.

If successful systematic thinking tools and processes are easy to learn and apply, why are not more organisations focussed on their use?

As part of my on-going research into the critical success factors of innovation I would very much welcome any thoughts you may have on this.

Transformational Leadership and Innovation

Transformational Leadership is widely considered as the most popular approach to leadership today. Not only popular but also widely regarded as the most effective.

There is an abundance of research evidence that clearly demonstrates that groups led by Transformational Leaders have higher levels of performance and satisfaction than other groups led by a different type of leader.

Transformational Leaders have positive expectations and believe that their followers can do their best. They inspire, empower and stimulate followers to exceed ‘normal’ levels of performance.

The concept of Transformational Leadership was initially introduced by James MacGregor Burns (leadership expert and presidential biographer) and later built upon by researcher Bernard Bass. Bass proposes that Transformational Leadership can be defined according to the impact it has on the followers of a Transformational Leader. It engenders the trust, respect and admiration of followers. Bass also suggests that there are four key components to Transformational Leadership.

The Four Components of Transformational Leadership

Idealised Influence – Transformational Leaders are a role model, they ‘walk the talk’. Followers trust and respect the leader, they emulate this and internalise his or her values and ideals. This in turn helps develop the follower’s leadership characteristics.

Inspirational Motivation – Transformational Leaders inspire and motivate followers. They have a clear vision and are able to articulate it in an inspirational way. Their behaviour provides real meaning and challenge to the work of their followers.

Intellectual Stimulation – Transformational Leaders have and demonstrate a genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers. Their lines of communication are open and followers feel free and at ease to share ideas that are recognised. Concern is given to the individual development needs of followers.

Individual Consideration – Transformational Leaders solicit new and innovative approaches towards the performance of work and challenge followers to be innovative and creative. They encourage solutions to problems from followers.

Whilst Transformational Leadership is not only the most popular approach to leadership today but also widely regarded as the most effective, it is easy to see the clear link between Transformational Leadership and the need to successfully foster innovation, problem solving and creativity.

Transformational Leadership is about transforming the performance and future success of a business and as such requires new approaches, new ideas, solutions to problems and innovation. It is no surprise therefore, that these qualities feature heavily in the four components of Transformational Leadership and are actively encouraged and supported in followers by Transformational Leaders.

What does it take to become a Transformational Leader?

To set yourself on a path to become a Transformational Leader, the following guidelines should prove valuable.

  • Create a clear, inspirational and highly appealing vision for followers
  • Make the link between the vision and the strategies to attain it clear
  • Articulate the vision in an inspirational and passionate way (use colourful and emotive language)
  • Consistently demonstrate confidence and belief in the vision
  • Demonstrate with conviction your confidence in your follower’s ability to contribute towards and fulfil the vision
  • Model exemplary behaviours that reflect your total commitment to the vision and organisational values
  • Recognise the success of followers
  • Demonstrate a genuine interest in the needs and feelings of individual followers
  • Challenge followers to be innovative, creative and to find solutions to problems

By embracing the above you will be making a significant contribution to creating an innovative culture where great ideas can flourish and solutions to problems will be found.

Time and discipline – innovations best friends

I remember running a workshop some years ago for a group of engineers. The aim was to develop their ability to generate innovative ideas and concepts when developing solutions for clients.

The workshop was a resounding success and by breaking psychological inertia and introducing a small number of systematic thinking tools and processes, there was a remarkable increase in the numbers of ideas and concepts that they were able to produce.

The participants were wonderfully enthusiastic and highly motivated and the feedback at the end of the workshop reflected the success of the day. I drove home that evening with a smile a smile of satisfaction on my face believing I had made a real difference. That is after all, the one thing above all others that drives me to do what I do.

I also recall the follow up workshop that took place some weeks later to explore how things were going.

The feedback from the initial workshop remained extremely positive and it was clear that the training had hit the mark.

I then asked the participants to share their experiences of using the tools and processes that they had been introduced to. They looked at one another expectantly and then turned to me as their expressions fell blank other than slight signs of awkwardness and embarrassment.

‘I’ve not really had the opportunity’ was one reason put forward for the lack of application of the tools and processes. ‘I’ve just been too busy’ was another.

This was followed by pretty much unanimous agreement that these were the main barriers they had met to successfully implementing the work we had done.

Upon further exploration the truth of the matter was, there had been an abundance of opportunities and lack of time and opportunity had simply been excuses.

It occurred to me then that simply giving people new skills or tools and processes that they wholeheartedly embrace and value is simply not enough (in hindsight this was obvious).

Reasons for the lack of implementation can be attributed to a number of things. Insufficient management support, psychological inertia, lack of motivation being amongst them.

In my mind, these are more often than not also excuses. Contributing factors perhaps but still excuses. After all ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give people opportunities but you can’t make them think’.

If you want to be more innovative, find great solutions and generate great ideas and concepts there are two essential ingredients. Finding or creating time to do it and having the discipline to apply effective thinking tools and processes.

It really is as simple as that.

Thinking Suppressants

In relation to our ability to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems there are a number of suppressants that exist that can stifle this. Some of these are internal, in other words what goes on in our own mind and some are external, those factors that we are exposed to or applied to us that limit or suppress our ability. The purpose of this short article is to explore some of the more common internal suppressants.

Knowledge

Whilst knowledge is essential it can also become a major factor in limiting our ability to create ‘new’ ideas. We can easily become bound by our own pool of knowledge, restricting us to what we know and often the more ‘expert’ we become the greater the significance of this. Without meaning to single out a particular group or stereotype a profession, engineers can present a somewhat classic manifestation of this particular issue. After all, when faced with difficult technical problems they are paid to apply their knowledge of engineering principals and rules to solve them. However of course, the solutions they present are more often than not limited to their own knowledge and experience and there could easily be a multitude of other improved solutions that exist outside their current knowledge base.

Lack of time

A lack of time to generate ideas and be creative can be real but in my experience more often than not it is a perceived excuse rather than a reality (although it can be made worse by management pressures). Of course we are expected to be productive and to have our sleeves rolled up and often this encourages the need to be seen to be busy, this is often compounded when economic pressures are high and the need for job security is raised.

This is somewhat paradoxical. Whilst we indeed may be busy or are keen to be seen to be busy, taking the time out to think could easily lead to better ways of working, improved solutions to problems, higher quality work and faster ways to work, freeing up time and improving performance!

Hindsight

One of the issues regarding idea generation is that when we strike upon a really good idea it often appears ‘obvious’ and in hindsight we devalue it. This tendency to view good ideas as obvious leads us to convince ourselves that it has probably already been done before and I wonder just how many really good ideas have been generated but have fallen foul of this and therefore never made it to fruition.

Fear of ridicule

Ridicule can be a major problem and can significantly contribute towards the cessation of people putting forward their ideas. If in the past when we have put forward an idea it is ridiculed, we clearly become les and less inclined to put future ideas on the table in the future. This often manifests itself in meetings and group thinking sessions and clearly needs to be stamped out.

We often hear the phrase ‘there is no such thing as a bad idea’ and this notion should be actively encouraged. An idea may on the face of it appear ‘stupid’ but within it could be the seed of something great.

Not my job

Sometimes we simply do not see it as part of our role to generate ideas, be creative or solve problems we see our function as simply getting on and achieving our objectives which more often than not do not include generating ideas. It’s more about getting the job done, delivering objectives in line with managerial expectations, rather than being paid to think.

Don’t know how

The sad fact is that very few people have been taught or ‘trained’ to think in a way that will enable the generation of high volumes of new ideas on demand or in the art of innovation. Going back as far as my school days I struggle to recall being taught ‘how to think’ and being creative was pretty much left to the domain of the creative arts but even then I can’t remember being taught how to generate ideas or think creatively (maybe I wasn’t listening)!

Therefore, perhaps traditional education is in part to blame for our lack of knowledge regarding how to generate ideas, be creative and solve problems.

In addition to this, I have encountered very few clients that have invested in the training and development of thinking skills, although there are early signs that this may be changing as more organisations are waking up to the significant benefits that this has to offer.

Why bother (apathy)

Even when we put ideas forward, it can feel like they disappear into a black hole or worse still we see them being implemented and someone else taking the credit for them (often management). A lack of feedback, recognition and/or reward is a certain way to kill off idea generation.

If we go to the trouble to share an idea and hear nothing thereafter we are certainly less inclined to bother again in the future.

Appropriate feedback (even if the idea is not going to be implemented), recognition and perhaps reward are essential if we are to be encouraged to make a constant effort to generate useful ideas and be creative.

Premature critical thinking

There is a tendency for us to be prematurely critical of both our own ideas and the ideas of others. When we have an idea the risk is that we immediately search for the reasons why it won’t work or can’t be done, thus prematurely killing off what might be the seed of an excellent idea.

In a group thinking scenario someone might table an idea in a meeting and the first reaction is for people to similarly comment on why it won’t work or can’t be done. This can often be construed as negativity and faced with it on a frequent basis can feel like we are swimming against an insurmountable tide. This is another external suppressant.

A proportion of internal suppressants or the manifestation of them can be put down to poor management. Not exclusively perhaps but management certainly have a major part to play in ensuring that they are addressed.