This post was written with some questions in mind: What does it mean to lead an innovation team in a network context? How can one be prepared for innovation management, talent management and performance delivery? After all, does this challenge change when we consider that relations are configured as networks and this configuration might facilitate the emergence of innovation? Is it possible to manage emergent innovation?
The intention here is to outline some ideas on this subject.
Managing a team: Competences or Talent?
Most multinational and big size companies use a competence evaluation matrix derived from the company’s strategy as a means to evaluate their professionals. We’re talking about a very useful and consolidated tool that guides important processes, from recruitment to career assessment. It is meant to guarantee some uniformity in performance evaluation, facilitate internal hiring and career planning.
But these competences might have little (or nothing) to do with how each person sees his or her own talents. Think of it for a moment. How would you tag your own talents? Are your tags similar to those your organization uses to evaluate you?
One usually finds very similar competences in companies that operate in different business contexts and even different countries. They mostly represent the common sense of professional profile with some bits of differentiation according to the specific organization they are applied to.
It is useful, but overall, this tool subjects people to a gap analysis and reinforces an external reference as a basis for assessment. People are permanently “lacking” something; therefore they should seek development to fit the organization’s expectations. This pattern of evaluation might contribute to professional anxiety, something that our society is abundant in.
We might be missing something very important, especially when innovation is concerned.
Now let us focus on talent, a notion deeply linked to abundance (something that our society is lacking). Understanding talent is realizing what overflows and wants to be expressed by each person. It has to do with the uniqueness, the life history, the emotional structure and the mental maps each one creates. It is related to finding one’s singularity, which is usually a slow and lifelong process. Talent is a much more fluid concept than that of competences, more difficult to catch and hold.
Managing Emerging talents
That said, we can distinguish competence management from the management of emerging talents, considering emerging talents as the unique potential that results from the complex combination of occurrences represented by:
- The diverse roles each person plays and has played in life (from which individual talent results) and
- The encounters and talent combinations of a specific group (the talents that can emerge in a team).
Emerging talents, when expressed:
- Might surprise the person and the team
- Increases the creative energy
- Enhances the odds that innovation will come out.
It is part of the innovation manager’s role to facilitate the identification and the connection of the team’s talents, having the mission and the vision of the organization as a framework. Is this complex? Yes, but it is also simple. Anyone can learn to tag his or her own talents, although the total number of tags will certainly be much broader than the number of corporate competences.
The manager is also responsible for innovation management, often using corporate tools, such as stage gates or portfolio management. These features are critical for the organization to distinguish the most valuable projects and to validate them. It is necessary to have clear criteria for the comparison of these projects and to have consolidated tools for decision-making. Nonetheless, these tools may have little (or nothing) to do with the actual pace of innovation, which is based on the connection of internal and external talents and can include leaps and connections that take time to mature. This fundamental nonlinearity of innovation is called slow hunch by Steven Johnson in his very popular video: Where Good Ideas Come From.
So now we can picture the situation of the leader: different tools, rituals and control codes and, at the same time, the challenge of living in a network that is increasingly enhanced by social media, where each person seeks for talent expression, connections and meaningful production. The bottom up component of innovation becomes increasingly important.
The trapped leader
So what “tools” does the leader have to deal with the bottom up characteristics of innovation? How will he or she manage emerging talents? How can innovation projects based on emerging talents be fostered?
We don’t intend to propose that organizations drop all existing tools and start from scratch. This is not a Zero-One question, but a matter of learning to operate in grey scale and to deal with paradoxes. What we cannot avoid is the fact that it is up to this generation of leaders to seriously address the issue of emergence in organizations and to seek for new lines of action in the “micro-contexts” of innovation that the teams represent.
Here we intend to present a list of useful practices that might inspire new forms of leadership and complement the control tools that dominate life (and the way of perceiving life, which is more serious) in organizations.
8 Ideas for managing emergent innovation
1. Identify and support the emerging talents: what each person says he or she knows is more important for innovation than mapped competences. Based in the mutual recognition of talents some truly original combinations and innovations may arise. Maybe that’s what Google is looking for when it offers 20% free time for people to meet and create new projects.
2. Give visibility to what the team does, give context to what emerges. The leader may be a mirror, a catalyst that allows the team to see its achievements and to put them into context. For those who want to learn more about this, it is worth reading Margaret Wheatley. But visibility is also making it happen! Once an innovative idea is brought to life, a gate is open. The team must pass the gate and execution then becomes the name of the game. Although accidents might lead the team back to problem solving.
3. Creating contexts for good encounters. What do we want when we meet somebody? According to the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who interprets Espinosa, good encounters happen when two bodies affect each other in composition, so energy grows. But in organizations, people meet for many different purposes, encounters are not free, but have very specific purposes. Paul Pangaro, in his critics of the excessive faith in design thinking, proposes what he names conversation design: the creation of conversation contexts and dynamics for different purposes. Setting goals, creating solutions and finding relevant innovation questions will require a specific design.
The leader might have an important role here, not only on setting up the design for conversations, but also on helping the team to be conscious of its own dynamics. How do we do what we do? What happens when we meet? Does our energy grow or decrease?
Even though consultants may be hired for this, the leader will increasingly need to think about the adequate space, dynamics and context for each different intention.
4. Create an open language, easily translatable that can be appropriated by the team. It’s amazing how rarely we stop to create new questions, open semantic fields (ie, conversations to share emerging questions and build new metaphors). There are teams that don’t even stop to build a deep understanding of the organization’s strategy. To create new language is a cornerstone of innovation because we live the mental maps we create and these maps are based on language and images. An open language, in beta, in permanent composition, as in open programming, is an opportunity for new types of appropriation and creative work.
5. Assign responsibility and seek responsiveness. On one hand, YES, there is performance to be delivered and the team is responsible for it. But responsiveness is related to the ability to creatively and timely respond to business challenges. It has to do with the ability to surprise and at the same time be relevant. Good relationships and trust among members of the team must then be combined with execution skills.
6. Create boarders, not limits. As Maturana and Avila put it, limits are walls, and boarders are like mobile fences that can be explored and moved to some extent. It is the leaders role to keep the boarders clear and open to creative exploration. Not everything is possible, but it is fundamental to foster new questions and at the same time give containment.
7. Search for meaning. With the volume of information and connections we have today, sensemaking is one of the biggest challenges for all professionals who want to be engaged with networks that are meaningful for their work areas. Harold Jarche mentions the abilities to Seek, Sense and Share as the basis of personal knowledge management. Not by chance is sensing the central process. The team could be “the” place to share the knowledge being generated in the networks of each person, and to discuss the filters that were used to process information. After all it is in conversation with peers who can challenge us that we generate knowledge. The leader may have an active role by creating context for dialogue and collective information mapping. He can also help the team understand what is most relevant. It’s easy to get lost when the forest is dense, and networks are dense.
Storytelling, something so valued these days, is also an important part of sensemaking, but we are talking, in this case, about making sense collectively in a team. What is the story we are all building together as we do our work?
8. Recognize. The more people share their thoughts out in the open networks, the more necessary to recognize the authorship of ideas. Thoughts are on a network to be appropriated by others, but giving credit is the basis of long lasting sharing. That is, for example, the principle behind the creative commons license. This so called “hacker ethics can be applied to the team context in the sense that people will increasingly share if they feel recognition and connection to others’ ideas.
There are many other ideas that would make a great debate, but I’d like to attempt a synthesis: the organization can be a platform for the expression of emerging talents and leaders can be the conversational weavers of those platforms. Innovation is a natural consequence.
Are you prepared?