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Building Innovative Project Teams: Question of Selection or Process?

Problem Solving LoopI was asked recently if I would consider delivering a speech at an upcoming Project Management Conference.

The question I was asked to consider is this (from an email communication), “The main challenge before organizations is identifying innovative members to serve on project teams. When the project manager builds a human resources plan, they need to establish a framework enabling team members to be flexible in their use of resources yet focused on the outcome to be achieved.”

To me, this problem statement suggests the problem is about how to identify certain categories of “innovative members” to be recruited onto a team.  The logic flows that if we recruit selected innovative people, they will likely come up with more innovative solutions.   Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

I’m not so sure. Team member selection is important.  In my view, if your goal is an innovative outcome you need a diverse and eclectic team across as many dimensions as possible.

  • We want people with the right technical skills and knowledge based on the problem we are solving.  This is of course, true, but too often, it is the MAIN criteria. While having technical “experts” can be helpful, it is often an impediment to breakthrough thinking. Experts are often self-limiting because their deep knowledge leads them to conventional solutions based on their experiences, when innovative solutions often are found on the fringes.

Experts are often closed-minded to new perspectives (which often lead to new insights and new approaches).  Let’s assume you are leading a product design project team for a company that makes DVR’s.   One might use a customer interaction to expose these technical experts to ask users about things like how much memory it should have, what buttons should be on the front, what the user interface should look like, and so forth.   Engineers will ask questions about the kinds of things they know how to fix.   It stands to reason.

But what if you asked users WHY they have a DVR?  Is it because they want to record programs, or because they want “a little more control over their already too hectic lives”?  This latter insight might lead us to consider what OTHER things in their lives they might want more control over that our firm might have the ability to provide.   This is a very different thought path than in the preceding paragraph.  This one might lead to the creation of a new electronic device that is not even a DVR.  In the previous case all we will ever end up with is a better DVR.

  • People who are not experts often bring the freshest insights.   When a firm like IDEO creates a project team, they routinely have engineers, scientists and computer programmers together with anthropologists, musicians, artists, and psychologists.   They build teams that bring both left and right brain power to bear.  Sometimes the person with the least “expertise” can bring the insight that really changes the direction of the team.  They are not encumbered with the knowledge that the engineers and scientists have, and are better divergent thinkers.  So at IDEO, they want people who are diverse not only technically, but by age, gender, race, job function, and so forth.  This brings a much deeper level of life experience to bear on the problem.

This approach works, because the PROCESS used by firms like IDEO is what produces the success. It can be learned, and with effective facilitation, most people can make a very positive contribution.   This process, however, requires certain set of team member skills.

–       Listening empathetically to the voice of the user (customer)

–       Building off the ideas of others

–       Never criticizing someone’s else’s contribution (take it and improve upon it) (see Pixar’s Plussing: creating a culture of dissent, by Len Brzozowski)

–       Suspending belief about your assumptions (at least for a time).

–       Being bold in your ideas

–       Speaking openly and honestly

This also requires project leaders to assume a very different role, that of unleashing the creative energies of the eclectic team, rather than trying to manage or control them.   They can do this by encouraging people to do the things listed above.   Underlying it all is a belief that the collective creativity of an engaged team will outperform the effort of the brilliant “lone wolf” every time.

Team Diversity by Problem Solving Skill Set

CPS Process 2We are all different in how we think and approach problems (shown on the graphic at the right).  Some of us are by nature love to gain knowledge by doing, while for others, it is more of an intellectual process – they are more the thinkers.  Some of us are brilliant creators of ideas (divergent thinkers) while others of us are better at listing the 15 reasons why an idea won’t work (convergent thinkers).

In the graphic at the left, the Creative Problem Solving Framework and Problem Solving Skills grid are overlaid upon each other.   It reminds us that we need people on our teams who are skillful in all four quadrants of the process.   The action oriented among us may be frustrated during the problem formulation phase of Creative Problem Solving while the big picture thinkers may be challenged when it comes time of execution planning.  The main point is that effective teams need both sets of skills.

You Needn’t Screen for Innovation 

So, select your teams based on knowledge, yes, but tempered with the right diversity of views and experiences.  Trust the process and facilitation to produce the innovation.  I have never seen a creative problem solving team that wasn’t collectively capable of developing powerful “game changing” ideas.  With a motivated diverse team, effective facilitation, a viable process template, an environment where people feel free to reveal their ideas, and with an environment where management is willing to tolerate a prudent level of risk taking, you may surprise yourself with how innovative you can really be.

Other Resources:

How to Design Breakthrough Innovations, interview with David Kelly, 60 minutes

Successful Strategies for Teams: Team Member Handbook, by Dr. Frances A. Kennedy, and Dr. Linda  B. Nilson, Ph.D., Clemson University

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