When presented with the first iPod prototype, Steve Jobs famously dropped it into an aquarium. The bubbles that rose to the top proved the device could be smaller; it could be better.
Since then, Jobs' lesson to Apple engineers has only become more relevant. In a world of ever accelerating change, continuous innovation is the only way companies can stay ahead.
What's An Innovation Team Worth?
As Jobs knew, a flourishing innovation team doesn't just require the right members. It isn't some corporate flavor of the month that requires once-a-week management attention. A successful innovation team requires hands-on craftsmanship from top decision makers, creating a culture of constant challenge and consistent improvement.
Historically, Bell Labs is a great reminder of how a well-oiled innovation team can benefit not just a company but all of humanity. Owned now by Nokia, Bell Labs contributed to breakthroughs ranging from television to fiber optics to the UNIX computer operating system. Innovations of that magnitude have won the American research and development firm a Grammy, an Emmy, and even a Nobel Prize.
In the space race of business, Bell Labs didn't just win; its innovations took us all to the metaphorical moon. It's been clever enough to see trends, wise enough to proactively experiment, diligent enough to pursue opportunities, and perseverant enough to continue on after a flop.
Don't Micromanage the Revolution
But dreamers and revolutionary innovators, however bright they may be, require structure. To direct their creativity without quashing it, business leaders must understand the tenuous balance that underpins innovation.
Innovators need freedom to explore and dream, but they also need to produce. The key to reconciling these seemingly opposed ideas lies in creating an environment that encourages failure.
For true breakthroughs to occur, the team must be uninhibited in developing concepts, but it must also hold them accountable through rapid testing. Concepts then ascend this iterative ladder in which improvement follows failure until they reach market viability. That initial failure is, in a way, the first rung leading toward an idea's success.
Manage Your Menagerie of Innovators
In most cases, innovation team mismanagement occurs when accountability and creativity are out of balance:
1. Set them free.
Yeti's culture is one of empowerment. We've seen time and time again that people with unique strengths will exceed expectations when properly equipped. There's no better catalyst to innovation than giving smart people the creative space and resources they need to succeed.
So once you've found the right people, trust them. Don't dictate how the team operates. Don't burden it with bureaucratic approvals or requirements. Innovation does not respond well to filling out forms in triplicate.
2. Encourage failure.
If an enterprise company operated like its innovation team, it'd move in a hundred different directions until it tore apart at its seams. The innovation team is intended to be a hyper-agile creative force within — yet bureaucratically outside of — the greater machinery of the company. For upper management, that can be a difficult concept to grasp, but it's a critical one if the team is to succeed.
A successful innovation team is small, with top-level support and a budget that allows for exploration of new ideas. Its mission is to come up with new ideas, research and prototype them, and then disqualify them. Strange as it may sound, the more the team fails, the better it's doing.
3. Aim at the target.
Yeti begins every digital project not with an idea of the solution but with a statement of the problem. Whether it's through market research, prototyping, or user testing, our first step is always to clarify the issue we're trying to solve.
The same goes for innovation teams. By definition, a breakthrough is an unknown unknown. It can't be foreseen. But even without knowing what the ultimate answer will be, it's essential to deliberately and precisely define the problem that needs solving.
4. Pick a fight.
Don't just allow conflict to happen on the innovation team. Create it. Be sure, however, that you do so in a constructive way. Just as a particle accelerator uncovers new information by smashing atoms together, innovation team members must clash to uncover new ideas. Any feedback left unspoken is feedback that could have improved the product.
When my team is in the midst of a design sprint, we dedicate an entire day to idea generation. Then, we take another day to sift through those ideas and get different perspectives on them. By creating an environment of constructive friction, we ensure no solution is left unturned. Our mantra is "disagree and commit."
5. Make friends.
My co-workers are some of the smartest product designers I know. But because the world of digital products is so vast, we often need to bring in partners with specific specialties. When working on Internet of Things projects, for instance, we often loop in hardware partners to assist with prototyping.
No one person or team has all the answers — not my team, not yours, and not even Apple or Bell Labs. So if your innovation team reaches a standstill, try supplementing it with an outside expert or outsourcing steps where it struggles.
In business, innovation must be constant. Companies that seek only to preserve the status quo will soon find themselves left behind by it. The best time to develop an innovation team was years ago; the second best time is now.
Tony Scherba is a President | Founding Partner at Yeti. Tony has been developing software since high school and has worked on digital products for global brands such as Google, MIT, Qualcomm, Hershey’s, Britney Spears and Harmon/Kardon. Tony’s writing about innovation and technology has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post and Inc. At Yeti, Tony works on strategy, product design and day to day operations, hopping in and working with the development teams when needed. Follow Tony on Twitter.