August 5, 2022, 12:08 PM EDT
Two Important Mantras for Your New Innovation Team
The following article was originally published on Mike Storiale’s Medium blog, sharing his personal insights on innovation. Mike is Synchrony’s VP, Innovation Development and University Partnerships.
Starting a team is hard. There’s a need to build trust, camaraderie, and align on clear goals.
But when you’re setting out to build a team that will work in white space, tasked with creating a path where one might not exist, it can be helpful to label some key differences that you’re going to live by.
In my experience working on innovation teams, two mantras have always helped my teammates and I stay grounded in the way we work together.
1. We Will Have Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
In most team settings, it’s critical to align and execute.
Our entire primary education teaches us to memorize what we’re taught, only to be tested and graded on answers where a shade of gray doesn’t exist.
But the scientific method is different.
The challenge is to believe something, test it, and potentially prove yourself wrong, all in pursuit of knowledge. Yet in so many business cultures, we seem to forget that proving ourselves wrong is progress, not failure.
So what does this mantra mean? In plain terms it’s saying:
I believe this to be true, but when I learn new information, I will pivot.
Consider the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic. An uncomfortable thing happened for many people — we watched experts change their opinions.
As data was released, new guidance was created. Sometimes guidance was rescinded, only to be added back in months later.
It’s not that this doesn’t usually happen. It does.
It just often happens slowly, behind the doors of a science lab, with peer reviewed studies and meetings about talking points. And with the benefit of time, resulting in one singular vision.
We often heard public figures get accused of “flip-flopping”, the implication being that they changed their viewpoint to suit their needs.
But let’s take this in the context of what it is. It’s ensuring you change your current trajectory because you’ve learned it won’t get you where you want to be.
On an Innovation Team, this is critical.
Time is rarely on your side when you’re working to build something new, and it’s possible (probable, even) that you’re going to be wrong more times than you’re right.
On the most successful innovation teams, the members will recognize when new information should change their approach. Even when my teams decide to end a project because it’s failing, we note the things that would need to change to pull it off a shelf again in the future.
We recognize that proving ourselves wrong is a form of progress.
2. We Will Disagree and Commit
Most teams look for consensus, but consensus is deadly to innovation teams.
Instead, look for commitment.
When your team is working to find a solution, dissenting opinions will challenge you to explain your “why.” Questioning one another, flowing different approaches, and sharing contrasting visions.
What does Disagree and Commit look like in practice? It’s saying:
We will challenge each other, but once we leave this room, we will have a direction, and there are no “I told you so’s”.
It does not mean we reached consensus. It means we discussed options and chose a direction without beating a dead horse.
Let’s take the example Jeff Bezos gave in 2016:
“We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.” — 2016 Letter to Shareholders
Notice in the above example that this mantra needs to hold true across all stakeholders, expertise, and seniority levels. There is not a line in the sand because the CEO felt differently. In fact, quite the opposite.
The empowerment your team will feel gives them confidence to work toward success.
My teams have consistently used this mantra, with a rule that once we leave the discussion, we are marching in the same direction as one team, regardless of our independent visions.
Now, that isn’t to say that the mantra disagree and commit cancels out the first mantra strong opinions, weakly held.
When your team learns new information, you can (and should) pivot.
These two mantras together will set a foundation for your Innovation team to begin with a baseline of trust, unlock creativity, and provide the confidence to say the thing in the room everyone else needs to hear.
To see what innovation looks like in action, contact us to see how Synchrony can work for you.