It’s funny how the world works: a modern man’s greatest fear isn’t some predator like the lion or leopard. Large external things aren’t really the ones that pose the greatest threat; it’s the little things, the kind that attack from the inside out. Like bacteria. And amoeba. And the HIV virus.
All you need to efficiently kill a Homo sapiens from the inside out, is to introduce little autoimmune viruses that if left unchecked, will cause healthy cells to turn against themselves until the body ultimately self-destructs.
That’s how you destroy an innovative team: from the inside out.
Funny how the world works, right? That sometimes, organizations which formerly acted wisely by dedicating resources to innovation can unwittingly destroy the very thing that essentially exists to be the salvation and future of the larger team or company they’re a part of.
Funny … but sad.
I have played an integral role in various innovative teams across different industries. It comes with the territory of being a product designer and leading an A-Team of devs, creatives, and ux-ers. With the objective eye of a consultant, I have observed many things pertaining to the success and failure of teams over the years, enough to write a book. But here are 5 seemingly simple ones that start a spiral that spells slow but certain doom for any dedicated innovative team.
1. Demand Immediate Business Results
The worst thing you can ever do to a team that is set apart to innovate and disrupt, is to expect that it will contribute measurably to the company’s bottom line in less than 5 years. Why is this a foolish thing to do?
- It shows complete ignorance of how startups and R&D labs work. No successful enterprise typically makes any significant revenue in under 3 years. In fact, most technology ventures take 5–10yrs before they stabilize, even though their ideas were validated very early on. Take Youtube for example. In 2016, CEO Susan Wojcicki said “We are still in investment mode, there is no timetable for profitability.” And yet Google acquired YouTube in 2006. Imagine that!
- Attaching an innovative team’s value to the quarterly or even annual bottom line makes them solve easy problems in the present instead of tackling big problems for the future. An innovative team isn’t an intra-agency. If you want an internal agency, set that up and call it exactly that.
- Someone wise once said that “Every existing business model is bound to fail … because the environment is bound to change.” The bottom line may be thriving because of an existing model, but if you spend the precious abilities of an innovative team trying to milk the most out of the current way of doing business instead of allowing them to anticipate and create the future, you’ll be caught flat footed when the environment changes. Which it will.
So what should be measured instead?
- A strong team with a strong culture. Build people, the people will build things.
- A set of strategic directions with proposed radical products and services.
- User research and insights into behavioral and economic trends and projections.
- A few prototypes of solutions, with one flagship that is focused on platform stability, validation of assumptions, organic growth, and preparation for scale.
You can’t do all these things well in less than 3 years. The only thing a proper innovation team will do to your bottom line is make a small negative dent in it. If you don’t have the stomach and patience for it, don’t start. If investors or shareholders would rather eat more of what’s collected today than prepare for the future, they should forget about setting up innovative teams. Plain and simple.
2. Allow Political Positioning
Innovative teams tend to attract gladiators and mercenaries that are super skilled at specific things, but who somehow unite under the leadership of some badass centurion who’s been on the battlefield but who also understands the strategy part of war.
It’s a bloody meritocracy, with deep mutual respect between every soldier.
And there’s nothing soldiers hate more than politicians determining the outcomes of battles and wars. If politics is so much as suspected to be at play in the leadership of such a team, trust begins to seep out. Once trust leaves, soldiers follow.
3. Desecrate the Space
Innovative teams must — and I say must — have a very strong belief that they are better than everyone else out there. It’s not just a culture, it’s a cult! That cult allows them to engage difficult challenges knowing their reputation is at stake. And boy do they wreak havoc! They will dismantle a problem, read research papers, fiddle with code in the middle of the night, argue for hours about solution architectures, and on and on and on … But out of that chaos will arise something beautiful and elegant.
A team cannot do this without having its own sacred space, its fortress and temple, its space station, from which to think and work and retreat to. To destroy a team’s culture … deny or invade their space. Blur the line between their base of operations and everyone else’s. Let them bump into grouchy people they’ve never met. In the washrooms.
Space efficiency: 1, Culture: nil.
4. Fail to Feed the Faithful
Companies really underestimate this, but one of the most important things to have, especially for innovative teams, is food. Yes, actual food. It doesn’t have to be free, but there must be readily available food within the space. Why?
- Don’t we all know that people work better when they don’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from. Like, literally?
- Having food on the premises saves the 20–30 min trip back and forth to a food place, and even more time to switch back into work mode.
- But most importantly, having food on the premises allows serendipitous interactions to occur over a meal. People with different skills bump into each other at the buffet. Someone buys someone else lunch because they seem to be too stressed over a bug to notice that it’s lunch time. Someone tells a silly joke that ends up being a business idea. The moment there are no organic “family mealtimes”, the team starts to feel distant and disjointed. And it eventually shows in the team’s velocity and output.
5. Increase Generic Managers
Finally, in order to assuage your concerns on “how quickly we can roll out something that will make us look good and make money”, go ahead and add a bunch of managers who crack a whip over the mercenaries and report back to you.
It baffles me why people don’t get this: in the same way that the most important person to a company is the customer, the most important person in an innovative team is the developer, then the designer, then the ux-er. The developers and designers (essentially the “makers”, pardon my obviously IT-oriented definitions) do most of the work in bringing the product to life. To the extent that these two groups of people can manage themselves, they should. The last thing they want is several layers of people over them, especially when they have to not only do their jobs, but also do other things like write reports and non-technical documentation which their generic managers should be doing — again to assuage the mostly political leadership that things are a-okay and headed to wild scale and profitability.
Innovative teams are not for everyone. They are for those who think decades ahead and who have the vision, tenacity, and incredible goodwill to build up the people that will build the future. If an innovative team is showing any of the symptoms above, the only way to salvage the situation is from the very top.
Build people. Encourage cultic culture. Let people do their job. Forget about revenue for half a decade.
Then watch the team build billion dollar products in a fraction of the time.