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Define the sandbox and let the innovation team play

May 31, 2017

As a leader with a corporate challenge or opportunity on your hands, it can be tempting to tell your project team what the solution is and get them to work on it making that solution happen. Here’s the problem: When you tell the project team specifically how you want them to solve the problem, you are stifling your own innovation and skipping an important part of innovation – diversity. The leader’s job is to define the “what” and the “why”, and let the team come up with the how.

Team workingOutlining the challenge or opportunity is the first step to letting the team in on the solution. Below, four more things leaders can do to empower their team to innovate independently:

  1. Give the project team parameters of what an acceptable solution could be. You’re not prescribing a solution here - you’re defining the sandbox that the innovation team will play in. This could include important timelines or deadlines; budget or resource constraints, and any factors that are “off limits” -- for example, you will not accept ideas that involve hiring additional staff or ideas that change your current management structure. Then, trust the team and get out of their way.
  2. Check in regularly. Just because the team is working directly on the project doesn’t mean you’re out of the picture. Check in with the team on a weekly basis. Stay up to date on their findings and roadblocks. But be sure not to poke your nose in on a daily basis; you’re the guide here, not the leader. You will be amazed at how empowering it is for the employees on the project team when they are given the freedom to work on an innovation project.
  3. Ask for a recommendation. Empower the team to provide you (and any other interested parties in your organization) with a recommendation as to the next course of action. The team should present a business case that summarizes their findings and their recommendation. The goal here is to prove out whether the idea is worth moving forward with or not before investing in development.
  4. Embrace “failure”. So, what if the project team makes a recommendation that includes not moving forward on an important company initiative (for example)? Great! This shouldn’t be considered a “failure”; in fact, this is something to celebrate! The team just saved the company money and time that would have been otherwise spent on a doomed product or service.

Even if you’re not totally comfortable handing over a challenge to a project team, small steps will lead to a big difference. It’s amazing what happens when employees are given the freedom and latitude to try new things and make recommendations that benefit the organization.

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