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Innovate to Thrive (Part 4) … Ownership

Innovation needs ownership, a champion within the organization. The champion must convince others to take calculated risks and work a bit – alright, sometimes a lot – outside of one’s comfort zone.

Often the most successful product development managers are the most facile, accomplished and successful salespeople within the company. Why? Because, as the leader, sometimes you have to be able to build consensus around a new, untested idea and have a disparate group of people, who typically are highly resistant to change, rally for a cause with an uncertain outcome.

I spoke recently with a CEO of a consumer products company who expressed his disappointment – he had an idea for an exciting new wrinkle in sunglasses technology, but his company stumbled and was beaten to market by others.

“I was the leader,” he said. “And I guess I failed to sell it in. Despite the unique opportunity, the others just didn’t get it. So everyone executed, in a manner of speaking. But their hearts weren’t in it. They were moving forward out of duty, not out of passion. And we dropped the ball.”

And that’s the owner’s job, when it comes to Innovation. To marshal forces, empower, inspire, get the team members to be stakeholders in the success, to have and inspire the passion to get the best outcome.

There are certain realities we need to face. Even with proper ownership, sometimes teams just don’t work all that well in the NPD environment. The participants can be easy to criticize – juicy targets for corporate negativity should a project not come to fruition.

Some participants are risk-averse. They will not feel comfortable taking a stand that (they believe) could potentially be embarrassing, unpopular, or – worse—career-damaging. Some folks just plain don’t like to make decisions and take a passive-aggressive approach to interpersonal relationships.

All the more reason for each product development project to have a powerful leader/owner who is a companywide champion for the effort, the leading advocate and, possibly, ultimate decision maker. Ideally, a team leader should also be a team member of other efforts, to enhance cross-fertilization of experience and knowledge. In addition to accountability, this cross-participation in multiple NPD efforts enhances mutual respect and support for each others’ efforts.

Who should be the owner/champion? Ideally, he or she should be an officer or executive/management member, with respect, authority – and the time and passion to make things happen, drive the project forward. However, he can also be a manager of a larger organization, especially if this individual is respected and has growth potential. Product managers with a strong understanding of their line are great candidates.

The size of the group is important as well. For a line extension, perhaps three to five team members is a good workable number, not too big or too small. Nimble, able to turn on a dime. Clearly the optimal size of the group is subjective but, in my experience, nimbler is better and less is more.

Rather than obsessing about the size of the group, however, I’d stress the importance of maintaining regular, organized team meetings, with clearly defined objectives. Key points to remember are:

– Face-to-face (in-person) is best
– Keep a regular date, time, duration
– Clearly state meeting objectives in a written, pre-distributed agenda
– Include cross-functional teams: marketing, sourcing, purchasing, sales, operations, quality assurance, etc.
– All participants to update their responsibilities in advance of meeting
– Review NPD by priority level (H/M/L)
– Set next steps, a clear-cut action plan, follow through and instill accountability

Ownership Tips

Everyone involved needs to feel truly part of the process and it’s incumbent upon the driver to knock down “us-versus-them” roadblocks in cross-divisional teams. To wit:

Who’s Driving This Thing?: Your program for sustainable Innovation must have a champion, a true driver of the process.
Where’s the Passion?: Select associates who care and are truly passionate about the product and the effort. Kick disbelievers off the bus – this is too important for naysayers to derail.
Different Strokes for Different Folks: Assign a specific task to a dedicated “owner” – this is critical to unleashing the best performance out of each member of the project team.

Robert Brands is a professional Speaker, the founder of, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation”: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman published in March, 2010 by Wiley.

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