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Empower Teams with Purpose

By Bill Nottingham

Every three years, Lottery League brings together musicians from across Greater Cleveland and assembles them into new bands for a couple months of rehearsals and one big show.

The Lottery LeagueThe initiative, described as “part rock n’ roll circus, part game show, part city-wide art project,” began in 2007, according to one longtime participant. “Six CLE indie-scene habitués bemoaned the tribal tendencies of rock recidivists, and hit upon the notion of a lottery as a way to reshuffle things and force collaborations between strangers. …All these new bands had 10 weeks to concoct a 10-minute set with at least one original group composition. (As it turned out, every group did all originals.)”

Now in its fifth iteration, the project has attracted funding from both music scene-adjacent businesses and major arts funders like the Cleveland Foundation and Ohio Arts Council. But it remains true to its intent: musical innovation.

At Nottingham Spirk, we have long believed that innovation is best achieved by small, empowered teams. When projects are developed by teams—rather than handed off from department to department, assembly-line style—then the team can be tailored to what the project requires. This also helps to blur the lines between designers, engineers, marketers, etc., and that’s a good thing; it keeps the project front and center, ahead of concerns about who will get credit or blame.

Our associates typically serve on more than one team at a time. This offers several benefits: it provides opportunities for different people to step into leadership roles; maintains a balance of stability, which people need to in order to focus, and change, which combats complacency and boredom; and increases the cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives, which is crucial to creative thinking.

Google X Research & DevelopmentGoogle X, Alphabet’s so-called “moonshot factory,” operates in a similar way. According to a profile in The Atlantic, people whose projects have ended join the Rapid Evaluation team, which offers input on all other projects, until a new team needs their services. The article compared this to the Hollywood studio system: “Like MGM in the 1940s, it employs a wide array of talent, generates a bunch of ideas, kills the weak ones, nurtures the survivors for years, and brings the most-promising products to audiences—and then keeps as much of the talent around as possible for the next feature.”

Retention may the most beneficial result of this system. We’re very proud of the fact that the average tenure at Nottingham Spirk is 15 years. That’s rare in creative industries.

There are key elements to the team approach, and we believe that any company can adapt these to increase its capacity to innovate.

Hire the right people

Not long ago, we interviewed someone for a position at Nottingham Spirk. His resume was impressive, but he blamed a former employer’s failed projects on its refusal to heed his advice. Presumably, he thought this made him sound competent, perhaps even visionary, but it set off alarms. Assigning blame is the flip side of taking credit, and both are incompatible with what we’ve learned about teamwork and its vital role in driving innovation.

The Culture CodeIn his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Dan Coyle writes about the San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful sports franchises in recent history. He describes coach Greg Popovich’s efforts to connect personally with every player. Coyle writes:

“For the Spurs, every dinner, every elbow touch, every impromptu seminar on politics and history adds up to build and reinforce a narrative: You are part of this group. This group is special. I believe you can meet our high standards. In other words, the Spurs don’t succeed because they are good at basketball. They succeed because they are skilled at a far more important sport: building strong relationships.”

Skills are important, of course, but they are not more important than the ability to adapt and contribute to your culture. Coyle advises against hiring what he calls “brilliant jerks.” The harm they do to culture usually exceeds their value.

Create small, multidisciplinary project teams

Small, multidisciplinary project teams are more efficient and more adept at finding creative solutions than traditional horizontal handoffs between departments. But they require a different mindset. Trust is the single most essential element. All members must feel confident that they will be heard. As Isaac Asimov once wrote about brainstorming sessions, “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation and a general sense of permissiveness. …All people at a session [must] be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.”

That’s why, in interviews, we always listen carefully for excessive use of “I” and “me.” And we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the applicant’s resume. We’re more interested in what drives them. We ask about hobbies. People with hobbies that combine the hands and the mind—painting, playing an instrument, restoring cars—often have the balance of vision and persistence that we value. We want people who derive satisfaction from solving problems and completing projects, not from getting the credit.

Multidisciplinary project teams also maximize cognitive diversity — differences in perspective or information processing styles — which research has linked to effectiveness in problem-solving. For example, designers and engineers tend to think differently not just because of their training, but because of longstanding personal traits that led them to those careers in the first place. They work best together when neither one is dominant.

Trust team leaders

People feel relevant when they’re trusted to make decisions and act on them without excessive oversight. Innovation requires risk. Risk requires trust. When people are worried that mistakes will hurt their careers, they take fewer chances. They’ll try to get by on tweaking old ideas, rather than dreaming up new ones. Business writer Daniel Pink lists autonomy first among the factors that, according to research, fuel motivation in the workplace.

But many companies are far more concerned about efficiency. Finding faster and less expensive ways to do everything is deeply ingrained, and often plays a significant factor in determining compensation and promotions. Innovation, however, is not a tidy, linear process that maps itself readily to these kinds of scorecards. It can seem messy, chaotic and plodding at times. Helping partners with traditional corporate cultures understand this, and to make adjustments in support of the ambiguity, is an important part of our work.

The All-In method

We keep our teams small so that the project does not get bogged down under the weight of too many opinions. But when necessary, we can assemble an entire department to tackle a particular challenge. Everyone understands that innovation is not a predictable, linear process, and sometimes you have to drop what you’re doing and lend a hand with another team’s work.

On the client side, we explain that nothing holds innovation back more than a lack of appreciation for the level of organizational and cultural shift that’s often necessary to support all of the critical stages required for success, including commercialization, marketing and sales. We can help with these things, but ultimately the client’s company has to support the innovation over the long term, treating as a full-class citizen within the larger, pre-existing product portfolio. If it doesn’t, the innovation may falter, and the innovation team may be less inclined to push the envelope on its next project.

These realignments require support from the C-suite. But the leadership has an even more important role to play in shaping the culture that makes innovation possible. Trust within teams is only possible when the larger organization demonstrates trust for its teams. This can be difficult for organizations with a history of compartmentalization and tight management practices. But in an increasingly complex business environment, the companies that take these risks will reap the rewards.

Relationships, trust, common purpose — these are the fundamental elements of a culture of innovation. What are you doing to build them in your company?

Bill Nottingham is VP of Growth at Nottingham Spirk.


Learn more about why Nottingham Spirk is a trusted leader in innovation.

Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.


Topics: design innovation, Business Culture, News, project teams, workplace culture, brainstorming sessions, empowered teams, creative thinking, product innovation, team approach

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