In parts I and II of this series I discussed the qualities that make up successful in-house innovation teams and the need for those teams and their colleagues to foster a culture of transparency if they are to succeed. In this article I want to discuss how to decide when these in-house innovation teams need to shift their focus from pure innovation and move into scaling. More so, I want to discuss whether these teams should continue into scaling or hand off their work to a different team.
In May of 1995 I graduated from James Madison University with my bachelor’s degree. It was a Saturday. On Sunday I packed all of my worldly belongings (essentially a mattress, a dresser, a Bob Marley poster and my 1984 Suzuki GS550 motorcycle) into a tiny storage unit. On Monday, I was on the road as the new sound and lighting technician for the Clyde Beatty – Cole Brothers Circus. I always joke that I actually joined to be the bearded lady (I had a lot more hair back then) but, in fact, I was pursuing what I thought was going to be my career – audio production – and this was a paying gig doing exactly that!
That summer was one of the most unique and interesting of my life. I had many adventures, learned a lot about circus culture (and myself in the process) and met many interesting people. One of the more interesting people in the circus was the human cannonball. In the 18 years that have passed since then I’ve forgotten his name but he was young (though older than me), blonde, fit – essentially an all-American football player type of guy. He was married and his wife was an aerialist performer in the same circus. He worked 4 minutes a day – 2 shows every day that lasted 2 minutes each. He collected about $1000/week I believe for taking the risk of being projectile vomited out of the mouth of a giant truck-mounted spring cannon, flying through the air and landing safely in a net about 100 yards at the other end of the big top.
I always wondered how he (or anyone for that matter) became the human cannonball. So, finally, one day I asked. I don’t remember who I asked or who answered me but I’ll never forget the story. It began with the previous human cannonball. To prep for the act every night the previous human cannonball (let’s go with HC for brevity) would drive the truck into the big top before the crowds arrived. He’d point the cannon in the appropriate direction and load in a dummy that was approximately the same size and weight as he was. He would launch the dummy, see where it landed and that is the spot where the safety net was erected. It was a simple assumption – “if the dummy weighs the same as I do then wherever it lands is where I will land and that’s where the net should go. “
One night the circus arrived at a new location during a thunderstorm. It was raining too hard to set everything up and test where the dummy should go. Instead, it was left outside overnight as torrential rains blanketed the area. The dummy absorbed a significant amount of water. The next morning, before the crowds arrived, the previous HC did what he always did. Drove the truck into the big top, aimed the cannon, loaded the dummy and fired. The dummy flew, landed and the net was erected. That evening, the HC got in the cannon in front of 3500 spectators and launched himself as he’d done dozens of times before. This time was different though. The dummy, soaked with water, was significantly heavier than the HC. This became evident as the HC soared well past the safety net and crash-landed on the circus lot floor. Needless to say this was his last flight. While he wasn’t killed he was critically injured and returned home to Florida to recuperate. While recovering, he tapped the guy cleaning his pool – a former local football player – to be the next HC. I’m not sure if he shared with him his own fate as the HC and he chose to ignore it or if the seeming glory of the circus spotlight coupled with the pay raise compelled him to take on this new role. Regardless, the baton had been passed on and a new HC was born.
The reason to tell this story – besides its inherent uniqueness – is to make you think about the assumptions you make about your life, your business, your designs and your projects. Just because something was true yesterday, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true today. Things change – sometimes without you noticing – and can have a significant impact on your activity. Stay skeptical and keep checking even your most basic assumptions. It turns out these basic assumptions are actually the most critical and potentially life-threatening.
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In the first post of the series I discussed the basic building blocks of a successful in-house innovation team: small, dedicated, collocated and self-sufficient. In this post, I’m going to talk about a key philosophy for these teams: transparency. It’s not in our nature to be transparent in the business world (or in the personal world for that matter). From the baseball diamonds of little league to the lecture halls of business school, we’re taught to be competitive and to push ahead of our colleagues. After all, it is our individual ideas and skillsets that define the quality of our work and our discipline and set us apart from our colleagues. How can being transparent – with our thoughts, our tools, techniques and ideas – possibly help us excel as individuals, as a team and as a company?
Transparency at the individual level
The first place to start, as with all of life’s improvements, is with you. Regardless of your core competency – design, engineering, management – sharing your ideas and techniques with your team early and continuously brings a whole host of benefits.
- Validation of your ideas – making your ideas public early gives the team a chance to weigh in and provide their insight into the feasibility, relevancy and validity of your thinking. This, in turn, saves you time by keeping you from exploring ideas that don’t align with the team’s vision or scope.
- Collaboration – the act of sharing by itself begins a dialogue with at least one other person on your team. As that conversation, and that technique, spread beyond that initial action a spirit of collaboration takes root. In addition, you are seen as someone to whom others can seek out for feedback and further collaboration.
- Thought leadership – transparency shows you’re actually getting work done (we all knew that, but it can’t hurt to show it). If you’re working on the project then you’ve likely generated ideas on how to approach it or solve the current problem. This paints you as the “idea person” and someone who has put in the time figuring the challenge out.
- Source of inspiration – Your ideas, now visible to everyone on the team, serve as a starting point for feedback and discussion as well as inspiration. Teams react to initial ideas, even if they’re straw men, rather than blank whiteboards. In addition, your efforts at being transparent may inspire others on your team to be more forthcoming with their early thoughts.
Transparency at the team level
Teams, especially those trying out new ways of working, benefit greatly from open-sourcing their processes. In many ways, without even trying, transparent teams become mini-R&D units for new thinking, processes and products. This recognition would be far more difficult to come by if the team closely guarded their internal IP. In addition, team transparency brings:
- An awareness of new techniques – if some of your colleagues could benefit from a new customer interviewing technique you’ve used or a way to measure the impact of certain architectural changes, hold a brown bag lunch and demo your new technique. Letting others see what your team is doing and how it’s working (good, bad or otherwise) saves them the time it would take to learn those things on their own.
- Consistent status updates for managers and above – nothing makes managers more anxious than not knowing what their team is currently up to. Using techniques like daily standups, weekly status updates, information radiators reporting back on the team’s success metrics, and weekly demos your managers will always be ready to answer their boss’s questions about your progress – which will keep them out of your way. Nice.
- Comfort with a team’s progress (especially if measured differently) – I talk a lot about lean teams and how they should be measured against business outcomes, not a specific output. This new way of measuring is difficult for managers since it is not binary (e.g., did the feature launch or not?). By ensuring your team is consistently communicating their progress against their targets (even if the progress is not good) it gives your manager a sense of how you’re progressing. In addition, it’s important to let your manager know what you’re working on this week, what the backlog holds for the next iterations, what you’ve learned in your recent experiments and what you hope to test next.
- Reduction in road blocks for colleagues and other departments – the marketing department wants to know when you’re launching new features. The customer service folks need to know when workflow updates are going live. These folks are not trying to get in your way. They’re trying to do their job. Make it easy for them (and for you) by always communicating to them what you plan on releasing, when and how it will affect their day-to-day work. This holds true for any department that’s dependent on the product you’re developing.
- Greater sense of pride and accomplishment – if your team succeeds and has been transparent about how they succeeded, they can continually point to those successes as proud accomplishments. That sense of pride is contagious. Other teams will want it and will reach out to your team to understand how you did it and perhaps even ask you to help train their crew.
Transparency at the department level
The word department is often synonymous with the word silo – especially a discipline-specific silo. There are other types of departments though – usually product lines or industry verticals serviced by the organization. Transparency at this level – regardless of the type of department you work in – can have a dramatic impact on the way the organization perceives your department as well as the impact you can have on the organization itself. By making the company aware of the processes your teams follow, sharing insights into the specific tactics those teams use and broadly posting the various teams’ progress towards specific business objectives your department can become a vision of what the future holds for the rest of the company. Let’s take a look at some specific impacts.
- Hiring brand – every department wants to hire the best practitioners. Being transparent about how you achieve great results, what kind of empowerment employees have and how everyone is measured and rewarded indicates a level of trust that many A-players value. It clearly indicates that your department does not micromanage and allows employees to push boundaries without fear of retribution.
- Thought leadership – as the organization learns more about what your department does and how it’s faring in its business efforts the perception grows that this is the department that is leading the organization both on domain expertise as well as process.
- Greater effect on company/product strategy – the mythical “seat at the table” becomes a far more realistic achievement for your department when your leadership understands what it is you do and how you do it. In addition, there is a greater confidence in the strategic suggestions your department makes to the organization because it is based on widely-available learnings you’ve socialized internally.
Transparency at the company level
Transparency at the organization level works in two directions – internally to your employees and externally to your customers. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to briefly focus on internal transparency. For external transparency and other insight into how to build successful companies you should read Dave Gray’s The Connected Company.
Internal transparency gives your employees a clear sense of how the business is doing and how their work is impacting that success. It motivates them to fix problems they can clearly see impacting revenues, customer satisfaction and other success metrics. It demystifies the “executive layer” and shows the rationale behind the decisions that come down from the C-suite. Finally, it encourages employees to be good corporate citizens and to dig into business intelligence data to find opportunities for improvement or to diagnose the root causes of problems they are tasked with fixing. Ultimately, it shows your teams that the company’s leadership trusts them.
Successful innovative teams and companies share their learnings. They share their successes and their failures. They’re honest about what they’ve tried and what they’ll try next. They build collaborative eco-systems that feed fast learning cycles and cross-pollinate innovative insights across the organization. It’s this transparency – at the individual, team, department and company levels – that empowers innovation teams to succeed.
Have some good examples of transparent teams and organizations you’ve seen or worked with? Share them in the comments below.
In the next post in the series, I’ll discuss how to decide it’s time to stop innovating and start scaling your solution.
Interested in seeing how other large organizations are building lean, innovative teams? We’ve got PayPal, GE, Intuit, The Weather Channel and many others presenting case studies and workshops at Lean Day: West. Tickets on sale now. Now, get $100 off with code: blog.
I will be speaking on working and designing with distributed teams at this year’s IA Summit in Baltimore, MD.
As the author of a book on collaboration – a book that touts the benefits of collocated teams – the reality of distributed teams is not lost on me. In fact one of the main questions I get asked each time I present on Lean UX is how to make it work with remote teams. While the benefits of in-person collaboration and communication are clear, it doesn’t mean they can’t be achieved with remote colleagues.
There’s been no shortage of coverage lately about the different strategies companies employ when it comes to their distributed work force. Certain companies, like Automattic – makers of WordPress, have an entirely remote workforce and swear it’s the only way to work. Other companies, like Yahoo!, have made headlines recently when CEO Marissa Mayer demanded all remote employees come back to the office. LivingSocial has promoted a distributed team environment under the leadership of now-departed SVP of Technology Chad Fowler. The poster children for distributed teams, 37 Signals, swear by this approach to the point that they’ve written a book on the topic. What has been missing from the conversation to date is context – the context of the work these companies are doing and the context of their current environments.
Let’s look a little deeper.
“I don’t really use LinkedIn or Twitter.”
“I don’t go to meetups.”
“I don’t really have time to meet people.”
These are just a few of the phrases I hear all the time from people I come across — whether they’re in tech or otherwise. And it shocks me.
I have long lost count of how many business connections, opportunities, jobs, professional acquaintances, referrals and just plain friends I’ve made through both social and real-life networking. To this day, I maintain the philosophy of taking every meeting. Sometimes they’re in person and sometimes they’re over Skype. Sometimes they’re just email conversations. But the connection is made.
Even if we don’t talk again for a year or if we never talk again, we’ve both gained something. And you never know where that little connection may lead. So take that call. Return that email. Schedule that coffee and accept that invitation. You won’t regret it.