ATD: “Innovation is a Team Sport”

Innovation almost never happens in isolation. In business, especially, innovative ideas are usually the result of multiple brains hard at work. Consider the work of Steven Johnson.

January 29, 2015

by Mark Donnolo, Managing Partner, SalesGlobe

Innovation almost never happens in isolation. In business, especially, innovative ideas are usually the result of multiple brains hard at work. Consider the work of Steven Johnson. His book, The Natural History of Innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From, looked at research by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West who proved that large cities produce exponentially more ideas than small cities. Johnson writes, “[Geoffrey] West and his team discovered … A city that was 10 times larger than its neighbor wasn’t 10 times more innovative; it was 17 times more innovative. A metropolis 50 times bigger than a town was 130 times more innovative.”

Extending that idea to the sales organization, we can conclude that a sales person operating independently won’t innovate as much as a sales team working together. The team can leverage its own talents within the organization or draw in partners, associates, and even customers outside of the organization, creating an ecosystem of ideas.

Clearly, who is on your team is important. Consider shaking things up and creating thinking groups that don’t often work together. Familiarity plays an important part in establishing the right dynamic, but new blood can also invigorate the team’s thinking.

Greg Johnson, vice president of product delivery and consulting at LexisNexis, likens team collaboration to a larger pool of thought. He describes it as a drawing of a target, with circles inside circles. “I draw a dot in the middle and say, ‘This is a rep’s perspective,’” he says.

The LexisNexis VP adds, “And this is not a criticism; this is reality. They only touch a certain number of accounts. And then you start drawing the circles around the accounts their manager has. If a manager has eight reps and he’s going on calls with eight reps, it’s a bigger circle and a bigger perspective. Their world is bigger. If you draw a larger circle around a regional manager, that person might be going all over the southeast. The rep has the smallest perspective, usually, and the more people you can get in a collaboration meeting, whether it’s sales managers or product managers or someone else, you expand that knowledge base exponentially. You broaden it in terms of the perspective and the experiences that they have in an industry or in a market or in a geography. And with those additional perspectives come more ideas and more strategies and additional approaches.”

Putting aside the hierarchy of team members is also critical to moving in a productive direction. Bill Chilton is a principal architect at Pickard Chilton, an award winning architectural design firm. He’s led projects for corporations around the world including the ExxonMobil office complex in Houston, Texas; the Four Seasons Place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters near Washington, D.C. His work is always the effort of a large team, consisting not only of the client, but people from many other companies including engineers and building contractors.

“Many of the people on the team that are essential to the collaboration aren’t trained as architects. They don’t need to be. It’s very much a collaboration between disparate voices that are each bringing their own expertise,” says Chilton.

“We’ve had great ideas for buildings that have come out of the structural engineer saying, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this, and what if we thought about the structure this way?’ That unlocks our thinking about the expression of the building in a way we never thought of before. But if we weren’t listening to that structural engineer, it would be easier to just say, ‘I’m going to design the building, and you’re just going to make sure it doesn’t fall over.’ We view the structural engineer as a creative, collaborative partner, and the process and the building are better as a result,” Chilton explains.

Bottom line: On an effective sales innovation team, roles exist independent of position and hierarchy, and team members may work within or outside of the company. How can your team members work together toward innovation—instead of trying to create in isolation?