I recall working in an enthusiastic multi-functional team -let's call it Team A -that came up with fairly radical ideas that were enthusiastically managed through the innovation funnel to become a proposal for launch funding. The money and resources were allocated with little even though the project was very different from what we normally did. At the same time I was observing another team -Team B -with a more conventional innovation project that was having great difficulty in keeping the momentum on their project, eventually it was launched, lingered for a year or so and then died.
"How do we explain why so many organizations get big and then just stop? Stop innovating, stop pushing, stop inventing...
Why are seminars sometimes exciting, bubbling pots of innovation and energy while others are just sort of dronefests?
I think people come to work with one of two attitudes (though there are plenty of people with a blend that's somewhere in between):
Thrill seekers love growth. They most enjoy a day where they try something that was difficult, or--even better--said to be impossible, and then pull it off. Thrill seekers are great salespeople because they view every encounter as a chance to break some sort of record or have an interaction that is memorable.
Fear avoiders hate change. They want the world to stay just the way it is. They're happy being mediocre, because being mediocre means less threat/fear/change. They resent being pushed into the unknown, because the unknown is a scary place."
Which reminded me of two diagrams I had devised to explain what was going on throughout the two projects I mentioned above. Each project had a team and a sponsor - someone who could recommend sign-off against resource requests from the team at gate meetings. The first diagram:-
Team B had embarked on their journey without thinking through what it was really about. This meant that at every review there were never enough answers for the questions being asked, adding "tasks outstanding" to the project plan. This meant that the project marked time whilst these questions were answered. They often were function specific in nature and tended to be answered by the function specialist alone without the collaboration of other team members. The project last forward speed and it was difficult for the group to get any acceleration between gate meetings. The gatekeepers were reluctant to sign off on resource requests without more justification which meant momentum was lost and morale was sapped. Eventually the product was launched (as there was nothing else in the pipeline) but it was not a success; the product incorporated some interesting technologies that fascinated the developers, but the consumer asked "why" and decided it was a gimmick at most and more likely a negative -as there were some snags to the in-use experience. It died.
Team A had a different approach:-
Team A got together, sat back and challenged the brief, built a common vision of the consumer experience they were trying to deliver and set about creating a new product that had some real benefits. The gaps between what the team knew and what it needed to know were identified and the project plan was designed to eliminate most if not all the gaps. These gaps could be thought of as risks or uncertainties and the plan involved fast iteration, making the ideas and concepts tangible, digitally or physically, so that they could be shared with any interested soul in the business, and more importantly the comsumer. At each gate meeting the team spoke enthusiastically about the new knowledge thay had generated that reduced the risks and uncertainties associated with the project. The gatekeepers signed off on the project and started to eagerly await the next meeting so they could experience the next installment of the story! The project went smoothly, was launched on target. The total product mix proceeded to redefine the market and the share went from zero to 50% making us the market leader.
Strangely the business could not cope with success and sold the brand to one of its key suppliers... who carried on being successful.
So Team A kept up momentum by behaving as a good team and achieved success by lowering the perceived exposure to risk of senior management, telling engaging stories about knowledge gap reduction by designing for the consumer, manufacture, competiveness and sustainability. This made it easier for top management to support the project's cause and support the team's efforts.
Team B set out to meet the brief with a fairly low technical uncertainty but a high consumer risk that was not resolved satisfactorally. This meant that the gatekeepers were uncertain about the risk levels and felt exposed to negative effect of failure. They tried to help the project on by asking questions that actually slowed things down as it was the original brief and the team's working practices that were suspect. It would have been better to kill the project rather than hesitantly support it to a poor conclusion. There are never any guarantees of success but team behaviour can be an indicator of individual's intuition about it. The fear of failure by stopping a project can be a sure way of failing! And guess which team had more fun!