How to Guarantee an Innovation Project Team Will Fail

To survive today’s business climate and its exponential rate of change, organizations can no longer practice the disastrous (and all-to-common) practice of placing big bets on a small number of ideas. It’s lazy and comfortable and risky.

Innovation leaders must learn the art of rapid decision making.

In the game of rapid decision making, only two metrics matter: speed +  throughput.

Speed = how fast you can validate an idea

Throughput = how many ideas (validated or invalidated) are pumping through your innovation engine.

If teams working on innovation projects are conscious of their speed and rewarded for their throughput, they will find their way from the good ideas to a great one. It may end up being the weirdest, ugliest solution in the stack and it probably won’t look anything like it did in the beginning.

Forming committees, building large innovation departments, and spending months defining parameters for where to innovate – slick documentation included – are luxuries which can no longer be afforded. Focus on creating an environment for innovation project teams to thrive. Let them loose on the world to exponentially increase the number of ideas flowing through the innovation engine and take more shots on goal.

 

To demonstrate what that environment looks like – and because it was more fun to do it this way – we designed how to set up a team to guarantee complete failure.

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Sabotage tactic #1: Large teams

We want our terrible teams to not feel like a “team” at all – more like a committee. There should be a strong lack of accountability and a dreadful slowness with a complete lack of decision making.  To accomplish this, we’ll set teams up to fail from the beginning by making them large: upwards of 5-10 people. With that many opinions and egos in the room, the team will never decide anything. Making quick decisions and taking action results in learning and *gasp* progress, so our large teams won’t learn anything or experience any sense of progress. Instead, they’ll be stuck in a conference room explaining and persuading. People will begin withholding their concerns and grow resentful.

What to do instead: Large teams are slow and poisonous. Instead, set up teams of three decision makers surrounded by experts, brought in occasionally and only for their expertise. Use Janice Fraser’s Balanced Team structure (read her slideshare or watch her talk about it).

Sabotage tactic #2: Dictate what people work on

If we allow people to work on things they are passionate about, they get excited and give more of themselves. That smells like a recipe for progress and we can’t let it happen! We want bored, miserable people on our teams who can’t wait to get home and work on their side hustles. That’s why we will decide at a high level which projects will be worked on at our company, and then hand them down to the people at the bottom to work on.

What to do instead: venture capitalists look for passionate entrepreneurs. Try adopting a similar mindset. Let those closest to the problems (and closest to customers) pick what to work on. Unlock their passion and empower them to explore ideas you might not even see the value in. Larry Page is famous for saying yes to every idea he was pitched, even if he thought is was bad because he knew (a) he wasn’t always right and (b) sometimes those bad ideas, after some market testing and pivoting, could morph into great ones.

Sabotage tactic #3: Don’t give them tools

We hired Mary to run the business. Now, we’ll ask Mary to change the business – but we won’t give her any new tools or support. Mary will approach this new innovation project exactly like every other project she’s done in the past and inevitably flail.

What to do instead: Innovation requires more than “thinking differently.” It requires a different day-to-day workflow. To do this right, people will need to begin designing experiments, picking the right things to measure, and conducting unbiased face-to-face interviews with customers. They’ll be spending a lot less time in meetings and in front of their computers and more time outside the office. They’ll need to begin making decisions with less than perfect information. Train your people in innovation methodologies and give them coaching support along the way. Have patience (this stuff is hard to do!) and expect that only 1/10 people will truly ever get it.

Sabotage tactic #4: Tie bonuses to the launch of one specific idea

For this sabotage tactic, we were inspired by those wonderfully delusional entrepreneurs you sometimes see at networking events talking about the startup they launched 10 years ago that still has zero traction, but they are convinced it will soon be worth a billion dollars. To recreate some of those zombies at our organization, we’ll tie bonuses directly to the project we’ve assigned to them. That way, they will have no choice but to launch it and keep it alive so they can get their bonus – no matter how strong the evidence is that nobody will buy it.

What to do instead: The failure rate of new corporate product launches is about the same as startup failures: 90%. The difference is that startups fail much more quickly and inexpensively. Once a new product is put into a corporate strategic plan, it’s almost impossible to kill because you’ve got people working on it whose job depends on it. They may be terrified to recommend the right thing if it’s unclear what their personal future would look like. Instead, lay out a clear path for teams working on projects that hit the chopping block. Find a way to allow them to go and work on something they think the company should pursue (see tactic #2). If you really want to get things moving at your company, tie bonuses to the speed at which they explore and kill ideas (i.e. how fast they learn).

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Sabotage tactic #5: Big budgets

This is an easy one. We’ll simply give our teams whatever budget they ask for and watch as they spend months making a detailed budget only to hire out the hard work and learn nothing in the process. They’ll think we’re supporting them by giving them money, while in reality we’re setting them up to fail. It’s like giving a kid as much candy as they want!

What to do instead: Entrepreneurs are able to accomplish a great deal with little money. Many companies – like Mailchimp and Shopify – started with zero and bootstrapped their way to massive revenue. If you ask them, they’d tell you it was a necessary constraint. They had to figure everything out themselves and couldn’t outsource the critical thinking. The constraints helped them to deeply understand their customers, prototype and iterate efficiently, and move fast before they ran out of runway. Constraints help people focus and go fast. The next time someone proposes that they need five new hires, $3 million dollars and 18 months for a new project, kick them out of your office. Ask them to take a week and run an experiment or interview 10 potential customers to learn something about the world that they aren’t 100% sure is true. Then ask them to report back to you with real-world evidence and tell you what they learned.

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Sabotage tactic #6: Allow teams to maintain their own comfortable status quo

We want our terrible teams to learn as little as possible. When they tell us that everything is going well, lots of people are saying they would buy the product if the company built it, and all the team’s assumptions have turned out to be true, we’ll just say “nice work” and send them on their way.

What to do instead: When nothing changes about a team’s plan, that’s when you should be concerned. Tell them you are worried that they aren’t digging deep enough and they are probably on a path to build something that customers don’t want. Tell them to focus on learning. Encourage them to act on what they learn and change the idea or kill it completely so that they can find their way from a good idea to the great idea. Challenge them to try as hard as they can to invalidate their assumptions (i.e. prove themselves wrong). When a team makes a concerted effort to gather evidence that they shouldn’t build a new product that will fail, that’s when they might be onto something truly interesting.

 

Stay tuned for part 2 for more sabotage tactics! 

Shane Reiser