Innovation Is a Team Sport

How to shape an inventive culture at your agency.

Successful inventions often spring from the minds of individual inventors—we often think of Thomas Edison as the classic example. But innovation is a team sport, according to a new Harvard Business Review article by a team of researchers—Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback.

The researchers set out in 2005 to study exceptional leaders of innovation and found them across the globe and in different industries. They noted that these leaders had moved away from the conventional view of how leadership works. These leaders had come to realize that “leading innovation cannot be about creating and selling a vision to people and then somehow inspiring them to execute it,” the researchers wrote. “Direction-setting leadership can work well when the solution to a problem is known and straightforward. But if the problem calls for a truly original response, no one can decide in advance what that response should be.”

For effective innovation leaders “the question is not ‘How do I make innovation happen?’ but rather ‘How do I set the stage for it to happen?’” the researchers said, citing the need to create a community that is willing and able to innovate. They defined the operational elements of what constitutes willingness and ability and described how those elements were incorporated into leadership strategies that accelerated innovation in companies as diverse as Google and Volkswagen.

Willingness to innovate. The researchers write: “To build willingness, leaders must create communities that share a sense of purpose, values and rules of engagement.” They define the three elements as follows:

  • Purpose is about a collective identity. The researchers say: “Purpose makes people willing to take the risks and do the hard work inherent in innovation.” But they go on to observe the “mutual trust and respect needed to create a community could only come from interaction and dialogue.”

  • Shared values are what we agree is important. The researchers note: “values include individual and collective thought and action.”

  • Rules of engagement are how we interact with one another and think about problems. The researchers write: “Together with purpose and values, rules of engagement keep members focused on what’s imperative, discourage unproductive behaviors, and encourage activities that foster innovation.” These rules fall into two categories. “The first is how people interact, and those rules call for mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual influence,” the researchers say. The second is “how people think, and those rules call for everyone to question everything, be data-driven and see the whole.”

Ability to innovate. While organizational willingness to innovate is important, three capabilities are needed to allow them to flourish, the researchers say. According to the researchers, these capabilities include:

  • Creative abrasion: an honest discourse and rigorous debate, where review meetings put ideas to the test. Google’s senior vice president for engineering remarked to the researchers: “You don’t want an organization that just salutes and does whatever you say. You want an organization that argues with you.”

  • Creative agility: the ability for teams to “pursue new ideas quickly and proactively with multiple experiments” and “adjust their plans and actions on the basis of the results and to repeat the cycle.”

  • Creative resolution: the ability to “make integrative decisions that combine disparate or even opposing ideas” to reach a conclusion. The researchers share a story of how Google chartered two teams to resolve a technical problem, each using a radically different approach. When one approach won on its near-term merits, members of the other team were asked to play key roles in developing a next-generation system.

Can it be done in government? The researchers focused on private sector examples, but can innovation be embedded in the federal government’s culture, as well? Sure. There are agencies doing just that. Look at the traditionally staid Health and Human Services Department. When she was secretary, Kathleen Sebelius launched HHS IDEA Lab, whose mission statement says “equips and empowers HHS employees and members of the public who have an idea and want to act.” It offers six different pathways for employees to create and act on innovations—just as the Harvard researchers envision.

HHS Innovates, for example, is an award program created in 2010 to recognize teams of employees at the department who have led innovations, such as whole genome sequencing to speed the detection of food-borne illnesses and the creation of a mobile phone app that can help people determine whether their ladders are safe to use. More than 500 staff-driven innovations have been nominated for recognition in six rounds of competition over the past four years.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda of the IBM Center for the Business of Government recently wrote about another HHS IDEA Lab venue called HHS Ignite—an incubator approach to new ideas. Through this pathway, teams of employees compete for a pool of funding to support innovation projects, giving teams the time, training and resources to pursue them. One team, Modernizing FDA’s Ingredient System, will test the software for a substance tracking system developed by scientists at the National Institutes of Health for their research to determine whether it will meet the Food and Drug Administration’s needs in tracking substances in medical products.

These and other initiatives underway at HHS show that a concerted effort to create an innovation culture can work in government. And the HHS approaches uses many of the same leadership principles as those demonstrated by exceptional innovation leaders in other industries around the world. Will they work in your agency?