Monday, May 21, 2012

Innovation is a Team Sport

In my book, Living in the Innovation Age, one of the ways I discuss to make innovation work in your organization is recognizing that innovation is a team sport. I also discuss why the concept of "skunkworks" often fails to spur the innovation senior leaders had hoped for. As those of you who have been reading my blog posts might already know, I've been reading the "classics" on strategy and innovation in an attempt to better understand where we are today. One such book is Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's In Search of Excellence. They list a “bias for action” as the first of eight attributes that distinguish excellent and innovative companies from their peers. To promote such a bias they further advocate the creation of skunkworks organizations where creativity is embraced and action is encouraged.

But how can this be? Today, as I discuss in my book, we know that most skunkworks projects are doomed to fail even before they get started. So did Peters and Waterman miss the mark? The answer emerged as I delved deeper into the crux of the book. The real problem is not with the concept of a skunkworks as described by Peters and Waterman. Rather, the problem is that most organizations have completely butchered it into something that it was not meant to be. These companies have somehow equated skunkworks with R&D laboratory operations that produce papers and patents by the ton, but rarely new products. These companies are besieged by vast interlocking sets of committees that drive out creativity and block rather than promote action.

So, what did Peters and Waterman imply when they talked about a skunkworks task force? Here are a few guiding principles to help set you on the right path:
  • Skunkworks task forces must be small – usually ten or less. 
  • Skunkworks task forces must be of limited duration; they solve a problem and then disband.
  • Membership should be voluntary. There’s nothing more likely to kill a project than having a task force filled with people who think it’s a waste of their time.
  • The task force should be pulled together quickly, without a formal chartering process. Formal charters are a sure sign of bureaucracy setting in.
  • Follow-up should be swift. If a task force can’t accomplish its goals in a reasonable period of time, it should be disbanded.
  • Task forces should have no assigned staff. Permanent staff is another sign of the beginnings of bureaucratic sclerosis.
  • The focus must be on outcomes rather than output (aka documentation, reports, white papers, etc.) In fact, documentation should be informal, and scant. Fifty-page reports tend to be written with an eye to showing how much energy has been expended; one-page summaries force the group to focus on conclusions and outcomes.

The Bottom Line - A properly designed skunkworks task force is not in contradiction to promoting innovation as a team sport because brings together the right people for a limited duration to time, encourages them to think creatively and outside the box, and promotes collaboration and action over process and bureaucracy.

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