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Setting up technology innovation teams for success

Written by: Kim Turley

Published on: March 20, 2018

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Companies today are facing an increasingly fast-paced world where the failure to innovate and transform could affect the health of their business. Understanding effective innovation techniques can give a business a competitive edge, and enable them to stay ahead of trends in an ever-changing market.

As consumers, innovative uses of technology have a huge influence on our lives, both in the tools we use at home and work. However, we rarely see or think about the hard work and processes behind those innovations.

The smartphones we use each day are a great example of an innovative product range that was a result of terrific processes, decisions, and market timing. We see the end result, but don’t often think about the entire design process of the smartphone. This includes everything from the testing and research that was conducted, to the team of clever, experienced people behind the design and the thousands of decisions made and refined, which when combined, became even greater.

It’s easy to have ideas; however, it’s not as easy to take ideas and transform them into something meaningful. Those ideas of true impact are generally the ones that are deemed ‘innovative.’

So, how can you have consistent ideas that make an impact? And furthermore, how can your ideas utilize technology to help your business innovate? Below, we’ve outlined some strategies to help foster an innovative environment at your organization, and to ensure your technology team is set up for success.

Starting points for technology innovation teams

Give a direction/focus

Innovation involves exploring a problem space, spotting opportunities, and creating strategies to deliver solutions. Often companies and their innovation teams have a lack of direction in identifying opportunities, gauging if their ideas are valuable, and communicating the resulting strategy. Lack of clarity tends to make it easy to lose the essence of an idea, and by the time it gets to stakeholders, it’s diluted with an unclear line of impact.

Start by identifying a challenge that you are facing as a business or industry–ensure it’s a large, tricky, complex problem. Explore and understand the related user needs as well as the trends in the market. Needs with high importance and low satisfaction scores become opportunities to make impact. When communicating solutions, try to narrate the idea as a story, using visuals to better illustrate the potential opportunity.

Avoid starting with shiny new technologies

While cutting edge technologies are important, too often innovation teams get distracted by buzzwords and almost force the adoption of these new technologies as soon as they come out. It can be hard to find purpose for a new piece of technology and how it fits into solving a specific problem when you’re focused first on the technology itself. Instead, shift the way you approach the challenge space. Follow customer needs, market trends, and their potential for impact, and then match it with the technologies that will help get you there.

Show return on investment

Teams often face difficulties showing their value or providing a ROI for their efforts. Innovation teams may want to purchase licenses for new platforms, or build an engineering team around their innovation efforts, but showing the value isn’t always simple. Innovation teams need a commercial/business mind to ensure ROI is thought about and addressed. Start early by looking at the designated market size when researching the opportunity, and think about it from a commercial point of view. Use lean business canvases to identify who would actually use the product and what your business model or subscription model would be around it. Not only can technology be licensed or sold, but the data and the product IP also has its own value.

Setting up a successful team

Like most speciality areas, technology innovation teams need established team structures and processes in order to create value and accomplish key objectives.

Team member attributes: generalists and specialists

When starting projects, experienced generalists are great for ideation and inspiring teams. These team members are usually able to make connections between different specialty areas without being constrained by the day-to-day details of each one. They’re able to think strategically about how each focus area relates back to the bigger picture. Specialists on the other hand are most useful after the idea selection phase, to discuss and test intricate details of an idea. They tend to be more detailed and uncover constraints, which helps to poke holes and validate assumptions. If you include specialists earlier on, it’s a worthwhile effort to take the time to train them with exercises that free up their thinking from constraints.

Establish a rhythm that works

Establishing a cohesive rhythm for your team is vital to success. Historically, product teams do this well using agile processes. Product teams schedule regular meetings to review task lists, prioritize, anticipate delivery times and offer feedback to one another. This concept of a regular rhythm can be applied to innovation and technology teams too (and ultimately all teams at an organization if you want to keep output consistent). Focusing on a project for 6 months without any feedback or regular direction can be a costly mistake. You don’t want to use all of your time and resources working towards a project that may be going in the wrong direction. Instead, organize meetings at a maximum interval of every two weeks to demo or assess the work produced, and determine whether it is showing value.

To stay ahead, go backwards

To stay ahead of the competition, sometimes you have to go backwards. If an idea isn’t flourishing, don’t be afraid to go back to the challenge space or opportunity to rethink it.

A fresh perspective after trial and error can be incredibly valuable. Agile methodology is designed to adapt to change and encourages you to fail fast and learn from your mistakes. Instilling this type of mentality with an innovation team can be a key contributor to successful outcomes. Sometimes the team will need to pivot away from an idea they have invested time into, and they must learn not to be precious with their ideas. With the speed of technology, this is increasingly relevant. A large technology platform with lots of technology debt could be rebuilt faster with newer technology or newer design patterns.

Quite often, when you’ve begun designing new technology solutions, the idea of going back to the drawing board can be daunting. To avoid this frustration and encourage team members to be open about rethinking their approach, create throwaway prototypes instead of release candidates. By their nature, prototypes are never intended to be final products, merely to test the assumptions on which your idea is based. Always testing your assumptions, and not creating a final product, will prevent your team spending energy in the wrong place.

Ensure there are feedback loops

Feedback is one of the most valuable tools for creating successful teams, ensuring the team recognize themselves whether they are on the right path and always improving. It’s important to plan opportunities for feedback by adding dedicated time to your workshop agendas and separate retrospectives to encourage the team to provide each other feedback. Conduct regular sprint-style demos to share work with internal stakeholders or a specific audience and solicit actionable feedback.

Keep the team small and together

The size of a team, way in which it’s organized, amount of time they have, and where members are located, can all play a role in limiting the opportunities for success. Sitting a team of four to eight people together in the same room will allow them to communicate naturally, and more frequently. It also will reduce the need for meetings and documentation, which remote workers require to stay aligned. We find that smaller teams feel more engaged, take ownership, and autonomy of their work.

Keep the team diverse

Teams formed of the same roles, backgrounds, or demographics, are likely to produce similar ideas and outputs. Diversity will increase the variety of ideas, allow different opinions, approaches, and open up interesting opportunities. Cross-functional innovation teams based on the key pillars of business, user, and technology should find it easier to push their ideas forward faster.

Technology innovation in our fast-paced world is extremely difficult, but not impossible. It doesn’t occur randomly and is not down to luck. Maintaining an up-to-date and expert level of knowledge is a great foundation. Through careful team planning, processes, and guidance, you can increase value, and create a consistent innovation output from your team.