Skunks, Pop-ups and Hybrids: How to Build a Team of Innovators

There is never a shortage of new ideas. But there is always a shortage of great talent to reveal their commercial potential. Lucky for the daily innovator, smart people want to work on promising projects. It's a character trait you can use to advantage when building a team.
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Big thinker Malcolm Gladwell once remarked that "innovation -- the heart of the knowledge economy -- is fundamentally social." Whatever else you may feel about Gladwell's pronouncements he got that one right.

There is never a shortage of new ideas. But there is always a shortage of great talent to reveal their commercial potential. Some of that shortage is owed to the age of scarcity in which we live, when resources of all kinds -- talent especially -- are in limited supply.

It's easy to name the characteristics of a great innovation team: experience, depth of skill, entrepreneurialism, collaborative aptitude, passion, tolerance for ambiguity and diversity along every dimension. Blending those attributes is a talent all its own. But first you have to find your team.

Talent can always be bought, of course. For example, in large organizations internal IT experts will probably expect to charge back for time devoted to new projects. Money can also buy the time of external consultants and experts who, for example, might run business analytics on an embryonic venture. But at the very beginning of an idea's life, budget of any size may be unavailable. Even so, money never needs to be the determining factor when it comes to building a team.

Lucky for the daily innovator, smart people want to work on promising projects. If they have any kind of career aspirations they understand the need to stay current and be involved in new ventures, even when that means crossing traditional organizational boundaries. It's a character trait the daily innovator can use to advantage in multiple ways when building a team.

1. Skunks. A cliché of the romantic narrative of innovation is the tale of a small team acting outside an established organizational structure. The most famous is Lockheed Martin's "skunk works," which produced the first fighter jet in only 143 days at the height of the Second World War.

Skunk works are a form of organizational jujitsu that goes on all the time, especially in large established organizations. Back in her days at Citi Amy "borrowed" four or five people from within her larger eBusiness effort to drive a below-the-radar innovation effort. Since the new initiative was still within the scope of eBusiness, the internal venture went unnoticed by the larger organization until it was ready for visibility. The result was the first "contactless" payment trial with the New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, an experiment that ultimately taught significant lessons to transit-system payment partnerships around the world.

Borrowing talent out of operational areas and removing it from the pressure of day-to-day P&L pressure makes sense, in theory. It doesn't add to headcount, it taps the imagination of a cross section of motivated people and it provides business-development experience to junior talent. It leverages the organization, in other words. For the innovation gurus that's a best practice. The presumption is that these tiny teams of ingenious guerrillas can move faster than the guardians of the core business.

But here's the caution: borrowing talent, especially in a short-handed era like ours, makes life harder on colleagues left carrying the burden of day-to-day P&L. Moreover, treating the guardians of the core business as obstacles to innovation is dumb.

The guardians of the core business can be essential allies, contributing budget, time and the lessons of experience. The daily innovator needs to figure out how to benefit from these strengths while preventing the weight of institutional experience from being a drag on ideas that don't conform to existing definitions of success.

If for no other reason than the long-term viability of a new business ambivalence about the practice of drafting talent from the core business is legitimate and must be acknowledged. Peers should be given first shot at validating who among their direct reports can be spared to contribute to a new team, and on what terms.

Stay in touch with peers who contribute talent to your innovation team. Even 30 minutes a month can be meaningful. Among other advantages this opens a rich vein of intelligence, giving peers the opportunity to ask provocative questions about the progress of the innovation effort (as well as sharing the internal gossip they're hearing about it).

2. Pop-up teams. An excellent way of luring talented people to a project while (temporarily) forestalling formal negotiations with their bosses is to be ad hoc. With the employment, in other words, of what might be called pop-up teams.

For instance, in almost every organization, design talent is typically in short supply. Instead of asking a designer's boss for 25 percent of their time for the next six months, invite the designer to kibitz as issues related to their expertise pop up. If the spirit grabs them they'll find ways of contributing. People who aren't grabbed by the spirit declare themselves too, if only passively. No matter their technical expertise, it's best not to invest much energy in pursuing them.

Keep a file of "hand-raisers" to capture the names of anyone who, say, asks a question at a town hall or emails an idea. Even when there's no specific project afoot find ways of keeping in touch with hand-raisers to encourage feedback, build readiness to engage and, above anything else, nourish the feeling of affiliation in a community of innovators.

Such a community is a self-identifying talent pool, announcing the presence of leaders eager to work on new ideas. The organization is compensated not only with the commercial development of an idea but with employees who are learning what it takes to be innovative and, in the language of strategic HR, fill the talent pipeline.

Pop-up teams offer experience in decision making, dealing with ambiguity, customer-centricity and cross-functional collaboration. Members of pop-up teams become the walking embodiment of all the many words written about culture and purpose and aspiration in creating the innovative organization.

3. The hybrid team. In recent years, the "innovation lab" concept has enjoyed a vogue -- particularly in the United States -- among established companies trying to capture some innovation mojo.

Among these are Boeing, Mattel, Motorola and even Wrigley's, the chewing-gum maker. The ideal of these hybrid approaches is to focus the genius of small teams while simultaneously exploiting cross-functional talent and maintaining access to the expertise of allies in the core business. To create, in other words, structure amid ambiguity.

Procter & Gamble's famous Clay Street Project is a good example of the hybrid approach. Clay Street rotates smart people out of P&G's core businesses around the world for short-term "immersion teams" at a converted loft on the eponymous street in Cincinnati. They work for one to three months on big-bet initiatives. The company credits the program with, among other victories, reimagining and resurrecting its moribund Herbal Essences brand.

The most hybridized approaches of all, of course, are those that include customers on the innovation team.

Among our favorites is the story of 3M's Post-it notes. In a classic story of accidental invention the reusable adhesive on the back of the notes was produced in a failed attempt to create a super-strong glue in 1968. The chemist behind the flop was quick to see the virtue hidden in the failure, and tried for years to get a hearing within the company -- unsuccessfully. But 3M also had a policy of what it called "permitted bootlegging," and in the mid-1970s another chemist added the sort-of-sticky glue to the back of notepaper. The Press n' Peel line was launched, and it died. But in 1978, 3M offered the product for free to people in Boise, Idaho. Their response provoked a relaunch with a new name. The result is probably sitting in your desk drawer right now.

What we like about the Post-it story is how it illustrates virtually everything a daily innovator confronts in taking an innovation to market. The flash of inspiration and persistence in the face of indifference. Making the most of failure. The enlistment of a like-minded collaborator with new perspective who takes an idea someplace surprising. The crucial support of the core business in creating the space in which a new idea can evolve. And finally the central place of organizational outsiders -- in this case, customers -- as members of the innovation team.

Friends and your business network are other kinds of outsiders whose potential contribution can be enormous. Teams of university students also offer surprisingly high-quality supplement to organizational resources that, in the age of scarcity, too often just aren't there. Professors will often help organize student teams for a semester-long project offering course credit. Such outsiders have the large virtue of being willing to work for nothing most of the time.

Managing hybrid teams is not without its challenges. A bit of infrastructure is usually needed -- the creation of nondisclosure agreements, for instance, and the time spent on a well-framed assignment. A leader/coach will probably be needed to guide the hybrid.

Further, how do managers conduct performance reviews in a hybrid team? In a heavily regulated industry, how is compliance assured? What are the metrics for building a business that does not yet exist? These are not minor considerations. But they are known problems susceptible to solution.

Beyond the work of assembling a team is the job of mixing all kinds of temperaments, all kinds of inspirations to make an idea live. That part of it might be called innovation alchemy -- the fundamentally social phenomenon, to use Gladwell's phrase, of turning an idea into a business.

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