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Innovation Clans are Made, not Born

As demonstrated in Part 1 of this blog series, of the three forms of managerial control – market (financial), bureaucratic (command), and clan (social) – the mechanism that leads to the best innovation outcome is clan control. Now, as a manager of innovators, you may be saying to yourself “Great! Now what?”

First,…get yourself a clan.

I know, that sounds obvious, but it’s a reality: no clan, no clan control. So turn your innovation team into an innovation clan. Okay! How?

What is a clan?

A clan is a group of people who have a common goal, who are dependent on one another, and who agree on appropriate behavioral norms. The members exhibit a strong sense of identity with and commitment to the clan. Usually, these behaviors will include traditions, ceremonies and rituals that serve as a unifying force for the group.

Admittedly, when I hear of ceremonies and rituals, I’m tempted to roll my eyes. I get images of Kevin Bacon enduring the paddling ceremony in the movie Animal House. But such rituals need not be contrived, corny, or irrelevant. They could be as simple as a Friday Doughnut Day, where team members bring in confections and share them as a team. Some teams create T-shirts with logos or catch phrases that identify them as a unit.

The ritual need not be fun or social. One product development team established Monday-morning team meeting with a unique format – the meeting lasted no more than twenty minutes, and was conducted in a room without chairs so that everyone had to stand. The team learned quickly to nail down the connections and follow-ups required for all projects that week, and established clear status expectations. This meeting, though all business, became the team’s favorite and most effective time spent. It also defined them as a unit, since it was visible to the rest of the organization, raised curiosity, and distinguished them as doing something different.

The size and composition of a clan will depend on the specifics of an organization. For small businesses, the entire company can function as a clan. As an enterprise grows, however, clans may need to evolve and separate into distinct teams under an overarching corporate family umbrella.

How do you make a clan?

At the risk of being obvious again, it all starts with selection of members. This should be done more carefully that it generally is. Fit within a team can be a tricky thing, especially for innovation clans. Fit can be a greater contributor to team success than individual technical skills. You absolutely must have diversity of thought and perspective to challenge the team to think fully and creatively. But people must also be able to work together in unity of purpose.

Getting both diversity and unity sounds like a paradox, but it is a paradox with a solution. What needs to be shared are values and behavioral norms. What needs to be diverse are styles, skills and experience.

Common behavioral norms that lend themselves well to an innovator clan include respect for other team members, willingness to share insights while appreciating counter thoughts, a customer-centric orientation, and a motivation to solve problems in new and better ways.

Diversity should come in the form of having all six of DeBono’s thinking styles on a team; mixing skills and functions such as engineers, marketers, sales people, supply chain specialists, manufacturing staff, designers, etc.; mixing different personalities, ages, and backgrounds.

Creating a functional innovator clan is a challenge, but one that will pay off over time. Hire slowly. Don’t let urgencies lead to sub-optimal hiring decisions. Have the patience to socialize new people into the culture, while also having the courage to let a member go if they prove that they cannot be a fit.

Once you have an innovator clan established, how do you exercise clan control? More to come in part three…

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