Innovation Is a Team Sport

What is the secret sauce for creating an innovation culture in your agency?

Successful inventions often spring from the minds of individual inventors – we often think of Thomas Edison at the classic inventor. But successful innovation is a team sport, according to a new Harvard Business Review article by a team of researchers – Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback.

Finding Leaders of Innovation. The researchers set out in 2005 to study exceptional leaders of innovation. They found them across the globe and in different industries. And they found that these leaders had moved away from the conventional view of how leadership works. These leaders all had come to realize that “leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision to people and then somehow inspiring them to execute it.” The researchers found that “Direction-setting leadership can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straight-forward. But if the problem calls for a truly original response, no one can decide in advance what that response should be.”

As a result, for effective innovation leaders: “The question is not ‘How do I make innovation happen?’ but, rather, ‘How do I set the stage for it to happen?’ ” . . . that is: how do I “create a community that is willing and able to innovate?” (emphasis added) The researchers then defined the operational elements of what constitutes “willingness” and “ability” and described how these elements were incorporated into leadership strategies that accelerated innovation in companies as diverse as Google and Volkswagen.

Willingness to Innovate. The researchers write: “To build willingness, leaders must create communities that share a sense of purpose, values, and rules of engagement.” These three elements include:

· Purpose is about a collective identity. The researchers say: “Purpose makes people willing to take the risks and do the hard work inherent in innovation.” But they go on to observe the “mutual trust and respect needed to create a community could only come from interaction and dialogue.”

· Shared values are what we agree is important. The researchers note: “values include individual and collective thought and action.”

· Rules of engagement are how we interact with one another and think about problems. The researchers write: “Together with purpose and values, rules of engagement keep members focused on what’s imperative, discourage unproductive behaviors, and encourage activities that foster innovation.” . . . These rules fall into two categories. “The first is how people interact, and those rules call for mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual influence.” The second is “how people think, and those rules call for everyone to question everything, be data-driven, and see the whole.”

Ability to Innovate. While organizational willingness to innovate is important, three capabilities are needed to allow them to flourish, say the researchers. These capabilities include: creative abrasion, creating agility, and creative resolution:

· Creative abrasion is honest discourse and rigorous debate, where review meetings put ideas to the test. Google’s senior vice president for engineering remarked to the researchers: “You don’t ant an organization that just salutes and does whatever you say. You want an organization that argues with you.”

· Creative agility is the ability for teams to “pursue new ideas quickly and proactively with multiple experiments” and “adjust their plans and actions on the basis of the results and to repeat the cycle. . . “

· Creative resolution is the ability to “make integrative decisions that combine disparate or even opposing ideas” to reach a conclusion. The researchers share a story of how Google chartered two teams to resolve a technical problem, each using a radically different approach. When one approach won on its near-term merits, members of the other team were asked to play key roles in developing a next-generation system.

Can It Be Done In Government? The researchers focused on private sector examples. Can innovation be embedded in the federal government’s culture, as well? Sure. There are agencies doing just that. Look at the traditionally staid Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There, former secretary Kathleen Sebelius launched HHS IDEA Lab which “equips and empowers HHS employees and members of the public who have an idea and want to act.” It offers six different “pathways” for employees to create and act on innovations – just as the Harvard researchers envision.

For example, HHS Innovates is an award program created in 2010 to recognize teams of HHS employees who have led innovations such as whole genome sequencing to speed the detection of food-borne illnesses, and the creation of a mobile phone app that can help users determine if their ladders are safe to use. More than 500 staff-driven innovations have been nominated for recognition via six rounds of competition over the past four years.

My IBM Center colleague, Gadi Ben-Yehuda, recently wrote about another HHS IDEA Lab venue called HHS Ignite – an incubator approach to new ideas. Through this pathway, teams of employees compete for a pool of funding to support innovation projects, with teams given the time, training, and resources to pursue them. For example, one team – Modernizing FDA’s Ingredient System – will test the software for a substance tracking system developed by scientists at NIH for their research and see if it will meet FDA’s needs to track substances in medical products.

These and other initiatives underway at HHS show that a concerted effort to create an innovation culture can work in government. And the HHS approaches uses many of the same leadership principles as those demonstrated by exceptional innovation leaders in other industries around the world. Will they work in your agency?

IBM Center for The Business of Government

Graphic Credit: Courtesy of ratch0013 via FreeDigitalPhotos

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Mark Hammer

I love this book:

The cover reads kind of sappy, but it’s an excellent scholarly, and practical, read on how to produce innovation-friendly contexts and innovative teams. Gets inside the “cognitive and social mechanics” of how innovation happens, and how innovation cultures are created.

I particularly like their example/case-study of the Swiss hearing-device company, Phonak ( ). This is a company whose R&D depends on the productive interaction of computer engineers, audio engineers, electronics technicians, audiologists, psychologists, communications specialists, linguists, neurologists, design specialists, physical production specialists, sculptors, cognitive development specialists (for younger people and older people), and probably other specialists I haven’t mentioned.

Their study of Phonak also nicely illustrates how pivotal simple design of the physical workspace can be in fostering collaboration and inter-unit curiosity. The R&D facility (at least when the book was written) has an atrioum up the middle, with glass walls facing inward, such that every one of these highly specialized units can see what the other specialized units are doing.

One needs to plan workspaces to bring people together. It needn’t involve unique and costly architectural solutions. Sometimes it can be as mundane as sticking a lounge in a strategic location with a foosball table; something that brings people together in a marketplace of ideas.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great article and the HHS Idea Lab looks promising! Of course, there are many other innovation labs in the Federal, State, and Local goverment, including The Lab @ OPM. I know that the USCG has had a vibrant innovation program for many years. Wouldn’t it be nice if we harnessed all of this innovation and linked the labs virtually?

John Kamensky

Terry – Linking the labs is a good idea! Some are physical labs (like OPM) while others are more virtual (like HHS), but creating a community shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe someone in OSTP might think this a good idea.

Mark – Thanks for the book reference. One thing I’ve not been able to figure out, though, is what happens in organizations that have moved to mobile offices — the physical layout of the office can’t be a factor any longer!

Mark Hammer

John, Well then maybe the mobile thing is not all its cracked up to be, eh? Or alternatively, perhaps it is not an impediment to innovation in some sorts of contexts or areas, but not particularly compatible in a great many others.

One of my personal heroes is composer Charles Ives. Ives was a true innovator in music, anticipating nearly everything in the 20th century, with the possible exception of electronics and death metal. And yet he worked in almost a complete vacuum if the history books and biographies are accurate. The guy established Mutual of New York Insurance, and composed on the side. He made a point of NOT listening to the music of his time, so that he could compose in his head, while in the office, and transcribe what he had composed, when he got home from work.

Innovation is funny that way. In some respects, it relies on people being around each other, bumping into each other, and the intellectual commerce that elicits and facilitates. At the same time, isolation can also be a wellspring of great new ideas. As Ives once aptly put it: “Everyone ought to have the opportunity NOT to be overinfluenced.”

On the other hand, maybe that’s true for the arts, and when it comes to the public administration sphere, the realism, practicality, and operational details that others can remind us of, make the difference between true innovation and caffeine-fueled cockamamie ideas.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

Another innovation lab is GSA’s new 18F.

18F’s stated purpose is to establish and scale successful models for procuring, building and delivering incredible, easy-to-use digital services to the people and businesses government serves.

A great first step to capitalizing on the synergistics would be to compile a list of these labs and their current projects.