Building Innovation Teams

December 17th, 2011 by Kel Smith | Filed under Innovation, Inspiration, Sample Chapters, Uncategorized

Third in a series of sample excerpts from the book Digital Outcasts.

Derek Jeter and Alex RodriguezDespite my general disinterest in the New York Yankees, I have always admitted a sort of respect and admiration for shortstop Derek Jeter. Given the geographic market in which he resides, Jeter has consistently demonstrated a unique ability to “manage up” to the heavy expectations placed upon him as the team’s brand antenna. New York is a place where hyperbole serves as a universal commodity, yet Jeter brings the same focus to his conduct as he does to his smart, heads-up play. These are qualities that anyone could appreciate.

As Jeter approached the 2010 season, his status on the team was somewhat in flux. He was in the final year of his contract and beginning to show his age in the field. He was not the most highly-paid player in the league or even on his team; that honor was then attributed to Jeter’s teammate Alex Rodriguez. Leadership is not measured in dollars but by influence, however, and Jeter was widely considered the most indispensable embodiment of the Yankee mystique.

Jeter and Rodriguez are an interesting study in how two very different individuals can coexist on the same team. The mercurial Rodriguez is a once-in-a-generation talent whose very name seems to attract controversy. He has admitted to using illegal drugs to boost his performance; he has been repeatedly accused of infidelity; he has rebelled against accusations of selfishness; he is generally treated with disdain by opposing fans when the Yankees travel. His frequently brilliant play brings a flair for unfortunate dramatics. Think of a circus sideshow centering around one man, and you get the general idea.

In contrast, Jeter’s persona enables him to enjoy comparative shelter from this level of scrutiny. By all accounts, Jeter is a decent man and a noted philanthropist, quietly donating his time to multiple charities, prioritizing his on-field efforts to make the players around him better. Jeter is the rare modern athlete for whom money has never been the core issue, and unlike many of his contemporaries he chooses to rise above localized toxicity. A 2010 spring training scandal involving Rodriguez caused a swarm of reporters to circle Rodriguez’ locker. As Rodriguez squirmed, Jeter simply looked across the room and bemusedly shook his head. [1]

Similar characteristics among members of working groups provide a daily exercise for managers, who must balance individual skillsets with collective attitudes. Employers want people who smart and get things done, but they also have to coexist in a productive way minus dysfunctional politics. The best approach is in determining collaborations that center around an aligned moral compass, preferably one that is endorsed or promoted by the organization’s senior leadership. This is how innovation teams separate signal from noise to focus on the common good. To do otherwise creates risk of liability, not only through a lack of contribution but also by usurping good people’s time on the job.

Too many technology groups focus solely on a single area, such as device manufacturing or software platform development, and so they divert all hiring efforts towards resource capabilities to achieve the highest amount of production in the least amount of time. This often creates logistical challenges for managers, because it’s nearly impossible to quickly expand a team without at least some degree of pain. Any dialog regarding roles, goals, opportunities, threats, deliverables and revenue ultimately devolves to lower common denominators regarding behavior. As a result, the needs of the end user get lost and Digital Outcasts are further alienated.

Building a successful team means learning how and when to get out of your own way. It means keeping one eye on the prize at all times and ensuring that the principles which dictate a group’s actions are clearly understood. It’s easy for a manager to simply hope that her entire team will be made up of Derek Jeters who keep their head down, don’t say much and just do their jobs expertly, but this isn’t reality. You’re going to have a Derek Jeter, you’re going to have an Alex Rodriguez, and they’re going to have to work together.

Here’s a helpful tip: for all their complications, people like Alex Rodriguez are just as valuable to a team’s success as a Derek Jeter. Rodriguez is consistently cited as one of the most talented players the game has ever seen. The question is whether such a mercurial presence is worth spending the extra time and effort necessary to harness that talent’s potential. A true leader remembers that the same behavior that makes the department prima donnas so maddening might also be what makes them occasionally brilliant. Consistent attention to the topline goal mitigates all the drama, disappointment and delirium that occurs when your star player is witnessed leaving a supermodel’s apartment at 4 AM.

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1 Response to “Building Innovation Teams”.

  1. […] Third in a series of sample excerpts from the book Digital Outcasts. […]