Innovation Takes Teamwork

Less an idea than the process that makes it happen, innovation takes the unique skills of four types of people to drive it forward. The Barack Obama campaign shows us how.

By Keith Ayers

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The Democratic National Convention in Denver has wrapped up its four-day run. As delegates and analysts think about what took place there, many will reflect on how the Obama campaign, as much as Barack Obama himself, was the success story of the primary season. Obama's triumphant run for the Democratic Party's nomination was a breakthrough in organized, disciplined and fired-up grass-roots campaigning, and it is likely to be the standard bearer for future political campaigns. His team's use of the internet and social-media sites to fund and organize the campaign resulted in his upsetting an established candidate, someone whose nomination had been considered inevitable by many political pundits.

The successful Obama machine (and it ran like a machine) perfected a combination of a closely aligned senior management team (David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Barack Obama) and empowered, fired-up people on the ground. No doubt the pundits will focus on the political lessons to be learned from this winning campaign, but the pointers for small businesses are equally compelling. Most importantly, Obama's campaign put innovation at its core.

The problem for business is this: Innovation is typically misunderstood. Many business leaders believe innovation is a rare gift that exists mainly in people who are in leadership roles. As I heard one manager express it, "That's why I get paid the big bucks." That kind of thinking overlooks many sources of potential innovation.

The leaders in Obama's campaign understood that the key to overcoming the more established competitor's campaign-Hilary Clinton-was to innovate: finding new ways to get their message across and tapping new "markets" for their message. Obama, Axelrod, and Plouffe also recognized that the innovation would not come from them, but through their talented army of supporters.

The Innovation Process
Innovation is not a brilliant idea; innovation is a process. A brilliant idea becomes an innovation when it is turned into a product or system that produces significantly improved results. There are four steps in the innovation process:

  1. Creating: Everything starts with an idea, and there is no question that every organization needs new ideas to remain competitive and to deal with a rapidly changing world. The people who are most talented at coming up with ideas don't have to work at it; they see possibilities everywhere. They don't see things as they are but how they could be. Of course, not all of their ideas are brilliant; some are really off the wall. But that does not deter the Creators. They just keep seeing those possibilities.
  2. Advancing: Many great ideas have died on the vine because they weren't picked up. Fortunately, some people have a natural talent for recognizing good ideas and running with them. Advancers are more focused on implementation than on creating ideas, and they also have a talent for interaction. Because they make things happen, they have developed the ability to sell others on the idea and get their support for the idea's implementation.
  3. Refining: Before the Advancers charge off and implement the idea, it would make sense to have a workable plan that it is free of holes. Refiners often play the devil's advocate role, asking the challenging "what if?" questions. It is important to keep them focused on developing a plan to make the idea work rather than just focusing on why it won't work. If you can't make it work, it will become apparent. Refiners' talents for analysis and attention to detail are often undervalued because they tend to challenge both the Creator and Advancer; but don't implement a new idea until you have listened to their input.
  4. Executing: One of the primary reasons great ideas fail to create an innovative change is a lack of follow through. Step-by-step implementation of the plan, ensuring that all team members follow through on their responsibilities, requires the talents of Executers. They are focused on the day-to-day realities of what must get done and making sure it does get done. Only when the Executers have completed their part of the process can the innovation be considered complete-and a success.

Many organizations fail at innovation because leaders don't understand that innovation is a four-step process, and the talents required at each step of the process are very different. So different, in fact, that it is unlikely one individual will be strong on more than one of the four steps. This means that for innovation to succeed, it needs to be a team-based process. But not all teams have team members with all of the required talents.

One recent example highlights the need for team-based innovation. The management team of a small technology firm was struggling to come up with ideas for new markets for their specialized computers. New competitors had caught up with their technology and were taking away market share. In desperation, they took their sales and sales support staff away with the management team for a weekend retreat. And they came up with the breakthrough ideas they were looking for. The biggest surprise of the weekend? A member of their sales support team had the most creative ideas.

But how often do people at that level of an organization get asked to contribute to creating improved systems and processes? Obama's campaign used social-connection software to invite his supporters-his front line-to organize and innovate campaigns that would work under local conditions. He asked them to contribute to improving the systems, processes and voter interaction in his campaign. This is a classic example of senior management providing the necessary encouragement and empowerment to get ideas flowing from all parts of the organization.

Let's look at our technology firm in the context of the four-step innovation process: They did not have any Creators on their team. As a result, they did not come up with any new ideas. It was only when they expanded their team to include the software support specialist that they had someone in that role.

Without Advancers, ideas do not get acted upon, or the team fails to get the support it needs for the idea. Without Refiners, ideas that are not fully thought through get implemented and mistakes get made. And, as previously said, without Executers, plans are not followed through to completion.

The key to creating a culture of innovation is for leaders to recognize the talents needed, identify those talents in their team members and encourage full team participation in working through the innovation process. Most businesses do not have the resources of a major political campaign and, unlike Barack Obama, you can't invite a million people to sign up-pretty much guaranteeing that all four types of people necessary to advance innovation processes are available. You can, however, create a culture of innovation in your team. Remember, it is the "we" in "Yes, we can!" that will drive innovation forward.

Keith Ayers is President of Integro Leadership Institute, which helps business owners develop a vision and purpose for their businesses.

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