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Engagement of teams is a must-have when addressing the key issues related to sustainable innovation programs. In the second of a series of articles focused on Innovation Culture, we are going to share our views about the way organizations should stimulate and encourage the creation of teams truly committed with innovation. Besides the more usual ad hoc requirements regarding team and individual creative performance, having a clear focus on team management is essential to achieve a more balanced and sound innovation program.

Engagement is a key success factor for innovation

Everyone recognizes that making the innovation journey is hard and requires a lot of courage and motivation. Therefore, organizations should adopt fresh and cutting edge team management techniques and methods to coach and support their employees. Having engaged teams is essential for a successful innovation program. However, getting individuals committed over a long period of time is quite demanding and entails a strong communication and inspiration blueprint.

Managing innovation is making choices and dealing with constant trade-offs about different issues, particularly the ones related to people. The ultimate goal should be to make innovation a collective responsibility of the entire organization. However organizations cannot afford to have a single policy for keeping continuous motivation and engagement among all people. They should draft a plan to encourage that at least key people actively contribute for the innovation program and become long-term supporters. Key people are the stakeholders that have the interest and the power to influence the success of the innovation program. Engagement is a key issue not only for the internal organization (including managers and employees from different areas – where typically the innovation teams are established) but also for the extended external partners network that could involve strategic suppliers, customers and R&D organizations.

It is impossible to engage with people without providing them a clear vision that contains both inspirational and aspirational ingredients.

Dealing with such a different and wide audience requires some common principles as well as distinctive strategies and tactics for people engagement. The following topics describe a common set of principles that could be generally applied:

  • Communicate the Innovation Purpose – It is impossible to engage with people without providing them a clear vision that contains both inspirational and aspirational ingredients. As already discussed in our first article
    (Paving the Path for Innovation Purpose and Closing the Alignment Gap),
    everyone should be in line with the organization’s vision, mission and core values.
  • Increase Collaboration – Encourage collaboration not only among employees from different areas (such as marketing, product development, manufacturing and finance) but also with strategic external partners. Having in mind that the organization wants their contribution to lead towards higher employee motivation and satisfaction with the work environment.
  • Promote Knowledge Sharing – Everybody knows that knowledge is one of the most valuable assets in an organization. Capture, retain and share knowledge required to support innovation throughout the organization in an efficient way – reaching the right people at the right time and context – is an important contribution for keeping people engaged. And this will also enable to turn non-formal tacit knowledge into a more explicit system. Taking advantage of the power of the “crowd” to gather external contributions is another key principle to assure a continuous and more transformational flow of insights.
  • Coach, empower and retain the best/most talented employees – because making the innovation journey is hard, organizations must support all their employees along the way. But for the best/most talented ones, it should develop a more consistent and powerful plan to guide them and make them strategic assets to the innovation program. Innovation is demanding new job descriptions (such as champions, catalysts, mavericks, among others) and organizations must be prepared to fuel and nurture these promising and engaging positions.

What really engages talented people and innovation teams?

This particular segment of talented people and innovation teams are much more motivated and engaged with intrinsic motivators rather then explicit rewards schemes (for instance bonus, extra pay and inducement prizes). When designing the plan to encourage more people contribution and support for the innovation program, particularly from talented people, organizations should consider their profound expectations and wants. For these individuals and teams the reward could be important but is not the only reason to perform better.

Rewards tend to be expected by people. And anticipating the rewards makes them less interesting over time.

It is very dangerous when engagement plans are too focused on rewards since this drives more competitive rather than collaborative behaviour. In addition, it is not efficient because rewards tend to be expected by people. And anticipating the rewards makes them less interesting over time.

The intrinsic motivators should be interesting and appealing for those who require stronger engagement with the innovation program. As mentioned, making this journey is very hard and requires a lot of courage and motivation. One of the most intrinsic motivators is the recognition of the competence (mastery in solving problems, achieving results or exceeding standards) by the organization and among peers. With this performance feedback, people usually feel a sense of satisfaction and pride that motivates them much more then a simple prize awarded for completing a task. Another key motivator is the sense of control and autonomy. It is very engaging to have the feeling that the innovation program is under their control and they are free to make their own choices and select the tasks that are more meaningful. Also critical is the sense of progress that reflects that the tasks are on track and moving in the right direction. People shall feel that their contribution for the innovation program is valued and believe in making a significant difference for the organization.

How to manage engaged innovation teams?

It is almost a law of physics: Engagement will decrease over time if there is no force to keep it running. Even the most motivated, high-performance teams tend to lose their momentum over time. It is like a wheel that starts to roll. It needs a push every now and then to keep it rolling and prevent it from stopping and falling down.

When it comes to innovation teams, this movement is produced by creative tension, which is responsible for creating initial motivation and keeping it over the team’s lifetime. To put it another way, the efforts to keep the innovation team productive and engaged should be based on a proper management of creative tension. However, this is not the only way to engage innovation teams. Management of individual’s commitment and the example set by the team leaders are also powerful tools for this purpose.

Now let’s look at two specific guidelines related to management of innovation teams that will help keep them engaged.

Regarding team behavioural patterns— the fewer, clearer and more concrete regulations are set, the better.

Set clear objectives and a few behaviour patterns

Besides communicating the Innovation Purpose (already addressed in our first article), providing a clear objective gives the teams a cause to fight for, and furthermore it allows them to focus on exploiting talent in the desired direction (that is, towards the goals of the organization). At the same time, team members should know specifically what is expected from them within the team, as well as what the limits are. The accomplishment of these two aspects allows managing the creative tension, diversity, setbacks and conflicts that certainly hide in the way.
As a result, teams will be more engaged and considerably more productive.

The objective of the team should be clear and expressly known by all the participants right from the start. It’s also beneficial to explain, even if only briefly, why those goals are important to the organization. Even better, it is important to tell a story about a desirable situation to reach when goals would be achieved, as well as mention the drawbacks of doing nothing in this regard.

Regarding team behavioural patterns—the fewer, clearer and more concrete regulations are set, the better. They should be mentioned whenever a team begins work, whether it’s made up of managers or employees. The team leader should explain from the beginning the basic behavioural rules inside the team. Specially, he or she should stress that job titles have to be left out of the meeting room. The leader should also remind the team about their responsibilities and commitments to goals.

Carry out a smart delegation of tasks and responsibilities inside the innovation team

Smart delegation encourages the emergence and use of talent, as well as the commitment to innovation. Empowering people makes them feel ownership of their actions and responsible for their results. Furthermore, getting people to take more responsibility for their work and their actions creates the necessary tension to keep them watchful and committed.

Commitments publicly and voluntarily accepted within the team tend to be stronger than those accepted in private and informally.

It should be emphasized that a key principle to apply for the empowerment of innovation teams is the delegation and acceptance of responsibilities and subsequent requirements in the presence of the rest of the team members. This practice strengthens people’s endeavour because commitments publicly and voluntarily accepted within the team tend to be stronger than those accepted in private and informally. More personal commitment means that they should do their best. Concerning an innovation team, this could be translated into higher motivation to find alternatives and creative ways to solve the issues and therefore
into more predisposition for the use of their creative talents.

Constantly asking the team to assume its responsibilities may seem obvious, but it isn’t at all. Due to the aversion to conflict, the leader often avoids questioning the team about its responsibilities or softens its demands (especially if he or she has to discuss the accomplishment of a task with a Senior Manager). It should not happen in any case and the leader should always bear it in mind.

Another reason for this adverse behaviour may be the fact that the leader has not accomplished his commitments. He may want to avoid questioning the team since he is afraid to be shamed in front of everyone.

If the team leader insists on not setting a good example, it should be immediately replaced by another more committed to goals and people. Setting an example is the only means of influencing others.

Innovation teams are one of the cornerstones of the innovation management program and they cannot be managed just like regular teams. Innovation teams need an outstanding deployment of talent, engagement and commitment of all their members. If managed this way, sustainable source of innovations and outstanding results will be obtained.

By Rui Patricio & Juan Cano-Arribí

About the authors

Rui Patricio is the Co-founder and CEO of CONTINUE TO GROW and Managing Director of Digitalflow. He is passionate about helping organizations implement innovation cutting edge programs that enable the deployment of differentiation and value added strategies. With more than 20 years experience in management and technology, Rui is a project coordinator, an active speaker, author, lecture and workshop leader on different topics of innovation and procurement.


Juan is founder and CEO of several companies which provide innovation management tools, courses and consulting services on innovation. He gives lectures on innovation at University of Valencia, University Santo Tomás Bogotá and at a number of private institutions. He published two books on innovation and has been included in the “Top 50 Innovation Twitter Sharers” of 2013 and 2014, according to the blog ​Innovation Excellence.

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