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PM Essence

Why I Wiish There Were No “I” iin “Innovate”

- Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble
Humans love to compete for status. That said, each community has its own scorecard. In Washington, it's how close you are to the President. On Wall Street, it's the size of your bonus. In academia, it's the number of times your papers are cited in other papers.

We have our own distinct way of keeping track in the innovation community. It's all about how close you are to the beginning of the story. How many times have you heard a brag line that includes something like “I was there right at the start!” or “I was employee number three!”

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What this means, of course, is that if the idea was yours, then you are king.

We love idea people. We celebrate inventors and their inventions. Heck, Edison and his light bulb are the ubiquitous icons of innovation. (Indeed, I've long since lost track of the number of innovation
books with a light bulb on the cover.)


But, if you give it just a bit of thought, you might agree that this is a questionable scorecard — maybe even a downright peculiar one. It's sort of like analyzing a football team and giving all of the
credit to the placekicker. After all, they literally kick off the game.

Now, in many endeavors, getting off to a good start is crucial. Innovation is clearly one of them, and breakthrough ideas are hard to come by. But in my view, the value of the idea has been blown completely out of proportion. Ideas are only beginnings. And getting from big idea to big impact is extremely difficult — especially in established organizations.

Unfortunately, because we imagine that innovation success is mostly dependent on brilliant individuals with brilliant ideas, we fundamentally misunderstand what it takes to execute.

Put simply: It takes a team.

But it's more than that. What's needed is not just “teamwork” in the general, feel good sense of the word. Executing an innovation initiative requires the creation of a very special kind of team — a cohesive assembly of individuals who each take on very specific roles. Only a very well-designed team can simultaneously handle two very different — and often conflicting —challenges:
sustaining what exists and building something new.

Unfortunately, companies, in general, aren't familiar with what these teams look like. Like a newcomer to the baseball playing world, they have little idea, if any, about the roles on the team. They have no
idea what the pitcher, catcher, infielders, and outfielders do.

Here's a specific challenge for you. Imagine you are running a decades-old heavy manufacturing company that supplies large capital equipment to other manufacturers. This year's strategy calls for building a new business — a software package that will help customers run their businesses more efficiently.

Now: Define the team that can build the new business while sustaining excellence in the existing one. Who is on it? Full time? Part time? Lead role? Support role? What are the responsibilities of each player? What should they expect of each other?

There's a lot to consider here. For starters, you'll need a mix of insiders and outsiders. You'll need some people focused on the existing business, some on the new business, and some splitting their time between both. And, you'll need a governance structure that engages in adjudicating conflicts and guides a disciplined experiment.

Innovation is not about one person being the hero. It takes a team … a special kind of team.

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Chris Trimble and co-author Vijay Govindarajan have written four books on innovation. They published their parable about innovation teams, How Stella Saved the Farm, in March 2013.

Chris Trimble has dedicated more than ten years to studying a single challenge that vexes even the best-managed corporations: how to execute an innovation initiative. With Govindarajan he coauthored the New York Times bestseller Reverse Innovation (2012). He lives in Vermont.

Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business and founding director of the Tuck School's Center for Global Leadership. He has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 corporations and speaks at conferences around the world. He lives in New Hampshire.