Susan and Marlow are off to do what could be the most trying task of all in their innovation effort – finding the right people who are willing to work on an innovation project. How will they get the necessary connections, ideas and passion in their team? Marlow has a plan.

As a kid, a quick wit and a smart mouth eventually result in a poke in the nose.  As one grows older, these tendencies lead one to become the life of the party, or as the acerbic outsider.  Smart mouthed, short kids never get chosen in gym, so I knew something about our next task.  We were off to do what could be the most trying task of all in an innovation effort – finding the right people who were willing to work on an innovation project.

In my experience, building the team is a lot like the plot line of some of my favorite movies.  Assembling an innovation team is very similar to The Dirty Dozen, a Lee Marvin vehicle about a bunch of losers and underachievers sent to do the impossible.  Or perhaps it’s like the Wild Bunch, the western where a bunch of crooks end up defending a town against an oppressive strongman.  In any metaphor, my experience is that the people you want, and need, on an innovation team rarely have any interest in working on that team, and the people you get are the people that their managers think are expendable.  Maybe that’s the movie title I was looking for – They Were Expendable.

Susan and I met later that week to talk about building a team to help flesh out our innovation goals.  This would include a permanent central innovation team and a cast of people from the different product lines and business units who would coordinate their innovation efforts with the central team, and help get the initiative off the ground.  We knew, going in, that everyone we wanted on the team was already wearing two or three hats and had full time jobs.  We also knew that the people we wanted would be very wary of our project, and that we’d be approached by a number of people who actually wanted to be on the innovation team.  I knew that we’d want, and need, some of these volunteers.  The difficulty was identifying the ones with passion who could add value, and weren’t merely tourists.

Susan and I decided on a somewhat unique approach to staffing the team.  Actually, it was my idea, but she put the spin on it that made it compelling.

“You’ve got the list?”  I said.  We’d built a list of the people within Accipiter we believed could add the most to our team, regardless of their existing role or responsibility.

“Yes.  Most of these people are really indispensable to their products or business units.  But I can’t imagine this project will get much buy-in without at least their support.”

“What better way to support a project than to join it?”

“How do we get them to agree?”

“We don’t.  We ask them to submit an application to join us.”

I checked my reflection in the window to ensure I hadn’t grown two heads.

“What?  None of these people will ‘request’ to join us.  We’ll be lucky if we can get a few of them part-time.”

“Then we, and Accipiter, aren’t setting our sights high enough” I said.  I knew how important the initial buy-in and staffing of the team would be to the eventual success or failure.  I also wasn’t about to collect the flotsam and jetsam of the unwanted and unloved as part of my innovation team.

“We interview every person who joins, and we, you and I, agree or reject each person.  We need to demonstrate that it is a privilege and a challenge to be on this team.  This team will make the most dramatic difference at Accipiter.”

“You are out of your mind.  No one will go for this.”

“Let’s examine the evidence.  Playing by the standard rules has resulted in Accipiter losing market share.  The cupboard is bare – there are no compelling new products.  Heck, as far as I can tell there are no compelling new ideas that might become products and services.  What’s Accipiter got to lose if they put some of their best people on this effort?  And don’t you go all “Chad” on me.  If we are going to lead an innovation team, we need to do things differently.”

I think it was the Chad comment that really got under her skin.  Chad’s visit to the corporate woodshed had been short and instructive, and since then he’d been more eager to reconsider how things were done at Accipiter.  I think he also gained a new respect for the connections we had to Brockwell and Dowdy.

“Well, when you put it that way, we’ve got little to lose.  It’s just going to cause a lot of upheaval.  We’ll need to get George and Angus involved again.”

No doubt.  We weren’t going to get all of these folks, but I was determined we’d get some of their best people, and we’d fill in the rest of the team with the most passionate volunteers.  Accipiter wasn’t going to change if we staffed a team of minor leaguers, has beens and new arrivals.  No, we needed some of the most respected senior folks, and some real die-hard volunteers, or the project would go the way of all the other initiatives at Accipiter.

“You know Einstein’s definition of insanity?”

“Something about doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”

“Yep.  On this project, we are at least going to try something different.  We’re going to find out how important innovation is, and how much investment the executive team is willing to make.  A small investment now will speak volumes to the company about the commitment to innovation.  A big investment will be rocket fuel for us now and later.”

“Have you done something like this before – selecting the best people AND asking them to submit applications to be on a team they don’t want to join?”

“No, but it needs to be done this way.”  I could only hope I was right.

“So, your position is that we request a number of the best people in the organization, and allow people to volunteer for the project.”

“Yes, and we resist having people dumped on us to demonstrate that a product team has given us a “resource”, since most of the time they’ll be giving us the individuals they can most afford to lose.  Either this project matters and gets good people, or it doesn’t.”

“OK, I get the demand for senior individuals.  What’s the value of the volunteers?”

“The senior people have connections and knowledge, but like Chad they’ll be creatures of the Accipiter culture.  They “know” what can, and can’t be done.  They also know where some of the best opportunities lie.  The volunteers, on the other hand, are irritants in their current roles.  They have passion and ideas, and expect to change everything.   They don’t care about the existing processes and frameworks, and they’ll have the energy and passion we need to push through the inevitable barriers we’ll encounter. Mix all of that well and we get what we need – connections, ideas and passion.  This isn’t easy work, and will have many false starts.  The volunteers bring the passion that doesn’t die at the first failure, and the experienced folks bring the connections and knowledge to help us succeed.”

“Are we talking about climbing Everest or conducting an innovation project?”

“What’s the difference?  Both are monumental tasks that require significant planning, good guides and teamwork, and both are subject to huge failures and few clear successes.  About the only difference I can see is that no one will fall off an ice field on our project.”

“A bit dramatic, don’t you think?”

“Machiavelli said that you should make no small plans, as they have no power to stir the soul.  I don’t want to do small things that will quietly disappear, and neither do you.  And, Accipiter can’t afford to fail.”

And that was how we built the team that created the ideas that saved Accipiter.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:

Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project. Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities.