Before I ever design learning experiences for clients I conduct discovery interviews to gain a better understanding of their innovation or leadership challenges. During these interviews I ask questions to elicit stories of past successes, current challenges, and future possibilities. I especially want to know what factors led to the success of an innovation.
Every once in a while I hear a story that makes my heart sing, because the teller speaks as if she is semi in love --not with a person but with being part of a great team. Let me explain-- the companies might be different, but the success stories that speak to the heart, have a common thread: Everyone on the project and every circumstance involving the project coalesce to seed a hotbed of innovation.
What were the factors that lead to innovation success?
Here's an example given by Amanda, a manager I interviewed who gave me permission to share her observations. Amanda (not her real name) was a member of an innovation team on a mission to integrate a new system to improve the cross-functionality of manufacturing, supply chains and operations at a global company in the entertainment industry.
- Two senior vice presidents in finance and manufacturing provided executive sponsorship of the project because they believed in its strategic importance to the future of the company.
The innovation we were developing was risky, and they cultivated a we-are-all-in-this-together ethos that was both motivational and charismatic. They told us we would all succeed or we will all fail. The VPs rolled up their sleeves along with everyone else to get the job done, and took turns working during the many late nights required to meet looming deadlines.They showed they cared about the group by providing snacks, as well as perks such as stress balls, slippers, PJs and pillows. They created a compassionate family-like atmosphere and made those late nights fun.
- We had a dedicated war room comprised of cross-functional teams and we had financial support for resources (materials, training, consultants, milestone celebration/recognition, etc.)
- Facilitators (not process owners) guided discussions and helped document as-is and to-be processes. Conflict was allowed and parking lot items were documented for future discussions.
- Everyone from the lowest rung to the highest did their creative best because they knew that their ideas and contributions were valued.
- It was important for team spirit for leaders to know people by face, name and project, as well as to have access to leadership & peer recognition programs.
- Timelines were realistic and due dates were flexible to some degree, but after the third delay it was all hands on deck across all departments.
- Regular required check-ins with project updates to all management levels helped teams stay on track, and ensured everyone was on the same page.
- The VPs gave back part of their own bonuses to staff when the project was completed successfully.
Amanda said all of these factors created an amazing experience that kept everyone engaged and motivated.
Most of the factors that contribute to cultivating a hotbed of innovation are easy to duplicate; the hard part is creating the right chemistry and team spirit. My advice to innovators: Take time to reflect on, and document not only what went wrong, or what could be improved, but also what has gone well with a project, what engages people, and what makes it fun to work together. Use these insights to improve the success rate of your next project.