Many innovation projects start off a bit like the scene in Casablanca where Captain Renault urges his policemen to “round up the usual suspects”. Renault is cynically capturing the same suspects because he knows Rick’s is full of people who are on the edge of legitimacy. He can demonstrate performance by simply sweeping up the people in the bar, with little research or thought given to the process. Similarly, when an innovation need arises many executives and managers “round up the usual suspects”. Often without a lot of thought or consideration they gather two types of people: overworked but highly effective managers who get things done, or anyone with availability, regardless of their capability. While this combination represents a number of attributes that are desirable, especially leadership and availability, they often lack an attribute that is even more valuable: desire.
You see, desire, passion, engagement or whatever you want to call it is critical to the success of an innovation team. Innovation, much like other initiatives and projects will encounter its share of setbacks and barriers. Unlike more traditional or familiar projects, innovation is likely to encounter more resistance and higher barriers, and the innovation teams often have less experience and fewer tools. So, unless the teams are fully committed to innovation success, they will take the path of least resistance when they encounter a barrier or obstacle, or may simply stop working on innovation entirely.
People who have passion for innovation, for change or for growth will not falter at the first barrier. They will push through and keep working even when the barriers seem insurmountable, and occasionally they will seem that way. People who are assigned to an innovation project and have no little or no stake in the outcome won’t keep going. They’ll abandon the effort or wait for someone else to remove the roadblocks.
Beyond the issue of engagement is the question of time. If you assign your “best” people to an innovation activity, it’s likely that they are already over committed and won’t be able to give enough time and attention to their existing activities or to innovation. Unless there is a very clear message sent about the importance of innovation, a manager’s time will be spent where their evaluation and compensation dictate it is most valuable to spend. Many innovation teams are staffed on a part-time basis, so when the going gets rough, the participants head back to the relative safety of their “day jobs”.
What your innovation activity needs is a team of unusual suspects – people with the passion and energy to learn new tools, think outside the box, question the status quo, commit fully to the activity, regardless of the path or the outcomes. These may not be your “best” people and you may find that many of them hold a more junior status than you’d prefer, but finding the right team with the right engagement is critical for innovation success. A team of passionate volunteers may need guidance, but they won’t lack for energy. A team that’s assigned will have to be carefully and constantly led to do good innovation work.