Are Your Teams in the Innovation Zone?

Martin North

As Product Leaders, we know how important innovation can be to the success of our products, but do we know how to create the right conditions for it to happen?

Innovation might be considered an activity to be done, through one-off activities such as hack days and workshops, but it’s also possible to be innovative, where creative problem solving is not an activity that happens occasionally, but is a core way of working that happens spontaneously and consistently. One-off innovation activities can create valuable outcomes, but the potential value of an innovative culture can be far greater. However, creating the conditions for this to occur requires a careful balance between process and accountability, in order to get teams into what I’m going to call – the Innovation Zone.

Being innovative requires an approach which supports both experimentation and learning. Having an experimental mindset means defining ‘failure’ not by whether the predicted outcome actually occurred, but by whether the outcome generated new knowledge. A team’s ability to learn is then determined by how effectively that new knowledge is utilised. Processes that control team behaviour, and systems that create accountability, can either support or destroy experimentation and learning. Too much or too little of either, and innovative thinking and action will be actively discouraged.

Processes are necessary to enable innovation. Without a minimum level of consistency, every day is an experiment. In this environment learning is impossible, as there is simply too much new data generated for any meaning to be extracted. However, the opposite state is much more likely. Too much process means experimentation can never take place. If your culture values consistent application of established process above all else, then tomorrow is probably going to look exactly like today. With the right balance, processes are not considered fixed, but are allowed to adapt dynamically over time. Experimentation occurs against a consistent background that makes learning easier.

The same balance is also required when it comes to creating accountability. Without any accountability, there is no reason for teams to attempt to learn from their results, as they have no reason to care about their performance. Too much accountability, and the looming threat of punishment for any poor result will only lead to a culture of blame and paranoia. When teams are able to take responsibility for their performance without fear of reprisal, then there is no incentive to avoid owning a poor result, but also sufficient encouragement for teams to learn and improve.

In the Innovation Zone, process and accountability are constantly balanced to create an environment where being innovative is the norm:

Innovation zone

Which zone are your teams operating in and as Product Leader, how can you support change?

Anarchic

Warning signs: Inconsistent performance without any reflection. Moving from crisis to crisis without ever looking back.

Organisations with limited processes and accountability are probably rare, as their prospects for survival are limited, but if you do encounter a team operating in this mode, only shared ownership of the issues and agreed processes to resolve them will allow the team to move forward. A crisis might not be the right time to innovate, but reacting with excessive application of external process and accountability will only build the foundation for future problems.

Toxic

Warning signs: Results are often poor, but all effort is focused on who to blame.

High levels of accountability without the support of effective processes can create inconsistent performance and a culture of finger pointing. Without a way to create predictable results, the only effective individual strategy in this environment is to focus on making sure your… assets are covered. Processes need to be established to ensure success is repeatable, and culture created where taking responsibility is supported, not punished.

Bureaucratic

Warning signs: Teams working within explicit silos of responsibility and waiting to be told what to do.

Burdened with heavy processes and the constant threat of punishment, the only way to thrive in this environment is too follow the rules and stay very quiet. If you are lucky enough not to be able to think of an organisation that meets this description, you can probably call a few government departments to get the idea. Bureaucratic organisations effectively suppress innovation by valuing predictability above all else. Flexibility should be introduced to allow problem-solving behaviour to emerge, while accountability is re-imagined to reward discovery.

Mediocre

Warning signs: Improvement initiatives begin enthusiastically but are eroded by organisational inertia.

With a lack of responsibility for performance, it’s unlikely that anyone is thinking about solutions for problems, but if they are the restrictive processes are making sure they are never implemented anyway. Caring about your performance in this environment can be detrimental to your health. Teams need to be encouraged to take responsibility for their performance and given sufficient flexibility to experiment and learn.

The Innovation Zone

Signs of success: Teams take ownership of problems and develop solutions without external intervention.

Processes are sufficient to create consistency while being both flexible and dynamic. Teams understand their boundaries are, but within them they are given freedom to solve problems creatively. Everyone takes responsibility for their own performance, and what would otherwise be considered ‘failure’ is seen as a necessary precursor to learning. Not only does this culture support innovation as a consistent practice, you can probably recognise how attractive this way of working will be to the best talent, and how strong the performance of teams in this zone will be.

Balancing process and accountability requires strong effective leadership, as neither bottom-up or top-down drivers can be sufficient on their own. Teams may lead cultural change, but organisational constraints will limit how long this can be sustained. Organisations need to set a high cultural bar, and then support each individual team in their adoption. A culture that generates innovation as a way of being rather than something to be doing requires teams of empowered individuals that want to enact change, as well as management practices that support them in doing so. This requires support at an organisational level, as well as at a team level. However the rewards for successfully creating this environment clearly go far beyond just innovation.

Martin North

Martin North | Author

Martin is a product and technology leader, who loves to solve complex problems. With over 10 years of Product Management experience no problem scares him. To every challenge he applies a deep understanding of customers and partners, his life-long obsession with technology, and a unique perspective on how all the elements of a business model connect in a dynamic system.

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