When one of the team members expresses concern about his ability to balance the demands of his regular work with those of the innovation project, Marlow is quick to respond. Will the team be satisfied so that the innovation work can continue?

They say the word sabotage was created when the Dutch would throw their clogs (sabots) into the works of the wind mills that dotted the countryside.  Every innovation project has its saboteur, usually well meaning but very disruptive, and I’d been waiting for that shoe to drop.  On a crisp morning not long after our meeting with Greg, the spanner, or shoe, went into the works.

James Davidson joined our innovation team from the aerospace product marketing team.  He was eager, interested and full of ideas.  He also had a full plate of work in his day job, which must have been important but uninteresting.  The shoe fell on a day when we were moving ahead on our strategic planning and preparing for some trend spotting and scenario development.  We’d just finished our plans and identified the meetings and workloads.

“Um, I have a problem” he said.  I glanced at Susan, who glanced at Greg, and we all waited patiently for James to spit it out.

“Go ahead” said Susan.

“Well, how are we supposed to get all of this innovation work done?  I mean, I still have a job, and my boss is on me to make sure I get my regular work finished.  I’m finding it tough to balance the demands already.”

“We’re just getting started” said Susan, and James nodded.  “The workload for the innovation team will only increase.  This work is in addition to your day job.”

“I know, and I volunteered for this project.  But I can’t end up worse off in six months because we created a cool new product but I didn’t get my other work done as well as it should have been done.”

“Good that you are voicing the concern now” I said.  I glanced around.  Of the eight of us on the project, only Susan and I were “full time”.  Everyone else still had some component of their regular jobs.  Greg seemed unfazed, but everyone else seemed sympathetic to James’ complaint.

“OK, how many of you have concerns about getting this project done well and keeping up with your day jobs?”  All the hands went up, except Greg’s.

There were only a couple of realistic responses.  We needed to gain some cover for these folks who were innovating, and if possible relieve them of more of their day job responsibilities.  We also needed to change their incentives and compensation to place more emphasis on innovation.  Those were some big changes, but I didn’t want to have to play the CEO card just yet.

“Greg, let’s get Jane from your HR team in here.  We need to place more emphasis on innovation in the evaluations and compensation structures for the team members, or at least work with the team to reduce their work loads so we can innovate successfully.  My preference would be to tweak the evaluation and compensation models so people who demonstrate innovation activity and success don’t get dumped on at promotion and bonus time.”  Greg nodded.  So far he was steady as a rock when we needed it.

“OK James, if we can work to divert some of your work, and perhaps add some points about innovation in your evaluation, does that give you the cover you need to stick with the team?  We probably can’t totally relieve your work load, but Greg can talk to your manager and we can ensure you don’t end up worse off for having participated on this project.  What do you think?”

James paused, but realized he’d probably gotten all he was going to get.

“It’s not perfect, but I want to be on this project.  I think it matters to Accipiter.  Hopefully, if we can create some great new products and services, any work I miss will pale in comparison.  I just don’t want to end up worse off because we are innovating.”

Heads were nodding like naptime in a kindergarten.  No one else had quite the guts as James, but they all felt the same way.  The shoe had dropped.  Everyone wanted to know that they would end up at least as well off in their positions and careers regardless of the outcome of the project.  They didn’t want to get beaten up in their regular reporting structures for spending time on innovation, and they didn’t want to get punished if the innovation effort “failed”.   If they didn’t get those assurances, we wouldn’t have to worry about wooden shoes in the gears, they’d vote with their feet.  They would slowly trickle away, leaving me, Susan and Gregg as the innovation team.

I knew what we needed, and I suspected Greg did too.  He stood up.

“OK, I hear you.  I’ll work with your managers to ensure everyone ends up after this project is over in at least the same situation if not a better one, and no one will get dinged for working on this project.  You have my word on that.”

His statement was like a breath of fresh air, or perhaps the escaped sighs from the team members merely felt like a breeze.  It seems as though everyone was holding their breath, and Greg hit the right notes to allow everyone to relax and recommit.  Now, instead of sabotage or voting with their feet, they’d stand by the team because the innovation leads had heard and understood their concerns.

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.