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Nearly every business leader I meet fears being overcome by tech-savvy upstarts. That fear drives their companies to invest millions into coming up with breakthrough innovations. But a sickening number of those investments fail. Truth is, you can have the right portfolio of investments, the right metrics and governance, the right stage-gate development process, and the right talent on the right teams — but if you don’t design the right handoffs between your teams, all of that planning falls apart.
If innovation projects are going to succeed, they’ll need to survive a handoff from an innovation team to an execution team. And every time you create a handoff, you risk dropping the baton.
Here’s an example. One major Asian electronics company built a design lab to develop new hardware product ideas. All too often, when the design lab passed a concept on to a product manager, like a computer customized for 3D modelers and film editors, the PM would ignore the lab’s thinking and simply apply the physical design of the computer to a product that she was already developing — like a low-powered computer targeted at students for the back-to-school season. When sales of the Frankenstein product missed their mark, everyone shared the blame. This electronics company had no clear plan for how projects would transition from the small design lab team back into the core business. They didn’t have a handoff, they had a drop-off.
How do you prevent a drop-off? By tailoring each handoff to the teams involved. In many companies, innovation teams tend to fall into three buckets: Explorers, Scalers, and Optimizers (with credit to Bud Caddell and Simon Wardley). Optimizers make up the core of most established businesses — they’re skilled at enhancing and perfecting the existing business to drive growth or improve operations. Explorers work in teams like R&D, customer insights, or product development. Explorers are skilled at uncovering new opportunities in the face of ambiguity — they’re people who translate inspiration into ideas using methods like design thinking. Scalers iteratively experiment and tweak new ideas until they find product-market fit using methods like agile or lean. These labels also nicely describe the phases of innovation: Explore, Scale, and Optimize.
How should you create a smoother handoff between teams? There are four basic models for the handoff, and dozens of hybrids. The right one for each part of your innovation portfolio will depend on how integrated your projects need to be with your core business.
The Owner’s Manual. This is both the most common handoff and the most difficult to pull off. After months — sometimes years — of work, an innovation team extensively documents their work in hundreds of pages of slides, spreadsheets, and other files, and then hands all of that over to a new team to execute. When was the last time you read an Owner’s Manual? Exactly. You only pull out the Owner’s Manual in a moment of panic when something is broken. In this model, a frightening amount of innovation work is skimmed over and forgotten. The new team then risks moving on without absorbing the learning of their predecessors. This model works best when there is no more ambiguity left in the challenge, when the project is ready for implementation by technical teams, and when the manual can be divided into small, specific, applicable chapters for each of its stakeholders.
The Architect. The best way to avoid a drop-off is to eliminate the handoff. In this model, the future owner of the work embeds in the Explorer and Scaler teams. That person then acts as a connector, knowing all of the avenues already explored and all of the learning gained. This is a strong model for industries like consumer packaged goods, where one person, such as a brand manager, is responsible for product development from beginning to end. Although the architect might not be leading the project in each phase, they will need to have final sign-off on the team’s work. If the architect doesn’t believe in the work, they’ll end up killing the idea.
The Ambassadors. Similar to the previous model, in this model, members of the Explorer, Scaler, and Optimizer teams remain embedded in each phase of the project to ensure that no learning is lost and that each phase of work is designed to feed smoothly into the next. In addition, this model improves the future work of innovation teams by helping them build an awareness of what downstream teams need most. This model is most common in software development teams, where UX designers may be involved in both early user research and long-term management of the product.
The Hive. In this model, multidisciplinary teams tackle challenges across the initiative’s life cycle. This is most common in accelerators and incubators, where a new organization is set up as a microcosm of the parent company and made up of people from every major function and discipline. Hive teams also have representatives from functions that might normally act as corporate antibodies, like legal, finance, HR, or compliance. The Hive pushes those protective functions from a posture of eliminating risk to one of reducing it — from saying, “No,” to saying, “No, but…”
Outside of the Owner’s Manual, each of the other handoff models brings implementation teams along throughout the innovation process in order to seamlessly transfer knowledge. Doing this reduces the sense that a new idea was not invented here, and makes the handoff less like drinking from a firehose and more like a series of steady sips.