Are you wondering why you don’t see the fruit of your team’s efforts to innovate, and why those promising projects are not getting off the ground?
Do any of the following scenarios seem familiar to you?
1. You start with a bang
Once or twice a year all members of your team, division or the entire organisation are brought together to discuss business strategy and to make exciting plans for the future. You explore opportunities to innovate, and brainstorm ideas for delivering better products or services while working more effectively and also enjoying what you do. Members then walk away with half-baked action plans, complete with roles and responsibilities, for getting these promising projects off the ground.
Over the following months you periodically check in with your busy people about the progress of the innovation projects in their charge, but everything is same old, same old. The team is still excited by the vision you’ve all created together, but those plans are yet to be followed through, as churning out deliverables and meeting deadlines take priority.
2. Your workplace is buzzing with ideas
Collaboration and innovation are central elements of the business strategy, and you never miss an opportunity to reward your team for their continued efforts to improve. The office walls are covered with whiteboards and post-it notes capturing the never-ending flow of ideas. Team members work together for many hours each day, in meetings and collaboration sessions, and also often hang out during their break time.
An ‘open door policy’ is in place, and the office has the feel of a busy cafe, with questions and ideas constantly flying back and forth. Those who need to concentrate are allowed to put on their headphones, but in general everyone is expected to be approachable at any time. Countless innovation projects are in motion; however, you rarely see any real breakthroughs.
3. You plan and follow through diligently
You already know that innovation seldom happens without careful planning, diligent follow-through, and carving out time for the various individual and collaborative activities required for creating something new and valuable. You and your team review and refresh the strategy and map out innovation projects at least a couple of times a year, perhaps review priorities and milestones monthly, and discuss immediate tasks and issues weekly, if not daily.
Teamwork in your office is organised around well-defined goals and follows a clear structure. At the same time, your people have plenty of freedom to organise themselves, work in ways that suit them best, and take a creative approach to solving problems. Put simply, you’re committed to becoming truly agile. But somehow you still can’t see the results you’re hoping for.
What could be missing?
Powerful teamwork and collaboration have similar qualities to performing a captivating piece of music. In order for your team to successfully innovate time and time again, they need to work together a bit like an orchestra:
- All members should play in sync, creating a symphonic experience
- Louder, more intense parts should alternate with quieter, softer parts
- The performance should have a natural rhythm that resonates with the body and soul
Let’s explore what these artful strategies can look like in practice.
Everyone plays in sync
When it comes to orchestrated work, you and your people should always be on the same page about how to best collaborate and create something valuable together. Leaders and managers often send mixed messages to their teams – on one hand, encouraging creativity and expansive thinking, and on the other, expecting members to work productively and to avoid risks and mistakes whenever possible. Half-hearted efforts in a confused environment will never yield amazing results.
Just watch what happens when someone unexpectedly throws a radically new idea into a somewhat rushed conversation revolving around getting things done quickly and efficiently, perhaps during a structured team meeting or conference call. Chances are that this idea will be quickly shut down before receiving the consideration it deserves. Not because your team members are seasoned critical thinkers and safe players, but because in this particular conversation and environment they are attuned to think critically and to play safe.
On the flip side, you’ll struggle to turn innovative ideas into systems, products or services if the rest of your team keeps going off on tangents. At some point they will need to stop coming up with brand new suggestions that could bring you back to square one. And when it comes to delivery, you’ll find it nearly impossible to work productively on a technical or analytical task, or to concentrate say on a complex calculation or a difficult report, in a bustling environment where people around you are passionately discussing ‘what if’s.
Put simply, your team can only do their best work if members understand their own and each other’s roles in the team, and there’s no ambiguity around what’s expected of them in any situation.
Furthermore, they need an environment and culture that supports everyone to get into the right frame of mind for the types of discussions that need to be had and the tasks that must be completed in order to reach the agreed goals.
Quiet and high-energy work alternate
The alternating dynamics of quiet, peaceful segments and high-energy, fast-paced segments can make music really powerful, and that’s no different for innovative teamwork. While too much quiet or too much intensity can make people lose perspective or focus, teams can achieve fast progress by skillfully switching between different modes of work.
However, it’s critical that team members know exactly when it’s the right time to tackle tasks by themselves and when it’s best to approach work collaboratively.
In any business, the majority of tasks can be divided into two categories:
1. Clearly defined, routine activities that produce predictable results
These are straightforward tasks that you can usually complete by going through the motions, such as answering recurring questions, preparing standardised documents, or reviewing and organising data.
You have all the pieces ready to get things done; you know exactly what you’re aiming to achieve and how to get there. Discussing with the rest of the team how to do these tasks will probably waste time and deplete everyone’s energy and patience. Therefore you’re better off tackling these tasks by yourself.
This type of work can often be systemised. But if the system has some hiccups, or doesn’t deliver the expected results, then you need further help. This is a good time to switch to a task of the second category:
2. Unique tasks and challenges, unclear goals and objectives
You might be looking to create something fundamentally new, like developing custom design or advice for a client with unusual needs and circumstances.
You might be facing a challenge there’s little precedent for, and which can’t be processed by your systems. Or perhaps the systems and processes you’re using don’t work as well as expected – there are too many mistakes and delays.
Maybe you’re not exactly sure what a successful outcome will look like, or there are differing opinions among your team or peers. You wish you had a crystal ball to see into the future. Perhaps you’re also dealing with conflicting interests or priorities, or trying to work with incomplete or ambiguous information.
Now it’s time to get together to collaborate creatively and to make decisions tapping into your team’s collective intellect. Trying to tackle these kinds of tasks individually will likely slow things down and lead to mistakes or unresolved issues.
The team performs with a natural rhythm
Beautiful things can flourish from a teamwork that moves to a natural rhythm.
As your team solves one problem after another through creative collaboration, many initially challenging tasks will eventually become routine. And as you develop your systems and processes to complete routine tasks more efficiently, you will always find opportunities for improvement, calling for the need to collaborate again.
Your team will need to find its own pace and rhythm. Sporadic collaboration can hinder innovation; this is no news. But too frequent communication – which can be easy to get caught up in, especially with an abundance of online chat platforms at our fingertips – can also have negative consequences. As shown by a recent study conducted at Harvard Business School, discussing ideas too often may hold your team back from coming up with extraordinary, game-changing solutions.
You’ll also need to work out how frequently you need to bring your team together to review your business strategy, fine-tune your direction, and discuss emerging opportunities as well as day-to-day challenges.
To sum it up
Give your team the time, space, training and support to seamlessly switch between different types of individual work and group work as needed, at the right pace and the right time.
You’ll find that your team will work more productively and solve problems faster. They will become more responsive, and at the same time more efficient. Innovation will become an integral part of their work, as opposed to a set of standalone projects which may or may not get off the ground.