Innovate From the Inside Out – Forming Teams

One of the first questions managers ask about innovation is how to form an innovation team. Who should be on it? What should they do? To whom should they report? Many government organizations are already committed to more than they have hours in a day to manage, and forming an innovation team seems out of the question. Applying lessons learned will save time and effort. And thinking creatively about resources can spread the work and increase the chances of success.

Stay Small

You don’t need a large team, you need a representative team. Find organizational knowledge of history of the problem, technical expertise, and knowledge of emerging customer needs – with emphasis on emerging.

A small innovation effort could be led by 4-6 people. A larger effort could have double that or more. You don’t need a crowd of people curious about innovation. You need a workgroup. There are ways to participate other than being on the team.

Start Where You Are

Form your team, or its core, from people in your organization. People who know your customers, the organization, the program, technology – whatever is most relevant to your problem and solution. Don’t worry whether they favor or disdain innovation or change. More on that in a moment.

Expand perspectives by drawing on people from other parts of your organization – customers, “sister” offices you work with, customer-facing offices, colleagues in other agencies who’ve been down this path. These might be on the core team, but will more likely form a tier of participants who react to requests for input and ideas.

Do Something Different to Get a Better Result

An important innovation lesson is that the people who do the daily work of an organization aren’t the ones to innovate it. Their mindset is getting the job done effectively and efficiently, not innovating and creating change. So how to apply this lesson?

Give the team space and time away from the office to work – a different building, hoteling site, coffee shop. Ask them to come back to you with answers to questions designed to challenge conventional wisdom and learn. “Yes, we’ve always done it this way but what would happen if….” And keep following that trail. This will encourage even the most traditional thinkers to unthink what they believe they know about a problem and rethink the situation. Involving people from other parts of the organization will fuel the conversation.

Innovative solutions to problems need decisions at key points, such as which solutions to develop, which to commit to, etc. Those come later, so remove yourself from the team’s early idea generation and shaping steps. Commit to pursuing the most promising ideas regardless of source, rank, or position. Identify decision points and commit to sharing decision making with a parallel manager in a key customer office or two. Commit to incremental decisions to learn as you go, and jointly brief up multiple chains-of-command.

If your organization doesn’t have an innovation fund, you will need to put the innovation effort in the traditional planning and budgeting queue at some point. By that time, however, you should have built support within your organization and customer offices for innovation commitments.

Government innovates more than it gets credit for, but it needs to keep innovating. Applying lessons learned and thinking creatively about resources will help you innovate from the inside out – forming teams, building capability, and adding value for your customers.

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