5 Steps to Spur Innovators Forward With Smart Management

Eight Nobel Prizes, three Kyoto Prizes, three Turing Awards, two GRAMMY Awards, and one Academy Award. That's an incomplete list of recognitions that Bell Labs and its members have received during the organization's 92-year life. 

You might not think of Nokia, owner of Bell Labs, as today's most innovative company. But Bell Labs hasn't just kept up with historical trends; it has created them. It's played a part in -- or, in some cases, been the sole agent behind -- breakthroughs ranging from the transistor to fiber optics to the C programming language.

Rigidity, Freedom, and Failure

So what's Bell Labs' secret? Did it find a way to farm innovation, no different than corn or potatoes? Did it drive its innovators into the ground, squeezing out ideas at all costs? Did it manage to hire team members who are simply smarter than the rest of us?

While that last one might be true, Bell Labs' real secret is its management style. Described in a classic Harvard Business Review article, Bell Labs made the decision to not micromanage. It doesn't push its people to hit certain numbers, and it definitely doesn't punish them for failed ideas. 

Innovation requires both rigidity and freedom. Innovators need to be held accountable for their ideas, but they also need space to try new things. Breakthroughs cannot happen without rapid testing and experimentation, and they certainly cannot happen without failure. 

Making Innovation Manageable

Explorative accountability is, of course, a drastically different management style than the micromanagement that's so common at companies today. It's plainly not easy to do, but innovators must be managed in a way that empowers, focuses, and challenges them. Here's how:

1. Eliminate bureaucracy.

Filling out approval forms for every code change is no recipe for innovation. Creativity requires a degree of creative freedom. If you have trouble giving that freedom, consider whether you've hired the right people for your innovation team.

Companies need to constantly looking for new ways to unshackle our innovators. We've found that people are most productive when given the liberty to apply their unique strengths to solve problems as they see fit. We encourage our employees to experiment with new technologies, use our company library, and explore unconventional career paths.

As Google’s Larry Page puts it, “My job as a leader is to make sure that everybody in the company has great opportunities and that they feel they're having a meaningful impact and are contributing to the good of society.” Yeti might not be in the same league as Google, but when it comes to employee autonomy, our philosophy is the same.

2. Be a guide.

A guide is not the same as a shepherd. As an innovation team manager, your job is not to choose a solution; it's to pick a problem. Make clear what the team's destination should be without steering the ship.

Obsess over the problem definition. It's difficult but by no means impossible to define a problem without its solution. Use market research, prototyping, and user testing to qualify and quantify it. Otherwise, your team might come up with a technically brilliant solution to an entirely different problem.

3. Provide structure.

Harvard Business Review recently found that creative friction, purposeful discovery, constant energy, and a flexible structure are all essential innovation conditions. Fortunately, that last tenet -- a flexible structure -- is much easier to create at startups than at older companies.

Innovation teams have to be hyperagile. To succeed, they can't be constrained by bureaucracy, but they do still need short- (How often should prototypes be presented?) and long-term (What's the next problem to solve?) goals. The right structure creates accountability without killing creativity.

4. Create conflict.

Conflict is an essential nutrient for innovation. When team members constructively disagree, they force one another to examine alternatives. Is a virtual keyboard really the best input technology? What if we tried a speech-to-text API instead? 

Embracing positive conflict isn't enough, though: You need to create it. This is the point of the "converge" stage of the design sprint process. After dedicating a day to ideation, we sift through the ideas together, creating just enough tension for the best ones to bubble upward. Any feedback left unspoken is a stone unturned in the hunt for innovation.

5. Encourage external interaction.

It's easy to wall off your innovators from everyone else. After all, they're subject to different goals, working styles, and management practices. Why not let them do their own thing?

While it's important to create space for your innovation team, it's also crucial to encourage outside input. Maybe the innovation team needs development help from an Internet of Things expert, or maybe it can't agree on a user interface design.

Regardless, there will be times when you need to supplement it with outside talent. No one person (or even one team) will ever know all there is to know about technology. We've helped augment innovation teams in several different forms: ideation, design, prototyping, or even just process consulting. As a partner to innovation teams, our job is to offer a helpful outside perspective.

These days, everyone wants to be innovative. But there's no such thing as a free lunch. Innovation doesn't happen overnight. It requires a dedicated team, trusting leaders, and an autonomous yet supportive culture. Just ask Bell Labs: Award-winning management is the key to award-winning innovation.