This post is part of the Innovation 101 series, a collection of essays exploring this topic from various perspectives
When we talk about innovative companies, there's a perception that the whole place is inventing new ways of making life better for their customers, from the front desk to the CEO. The reality is that, in any company, there's usually a much smaller group whose job is to invent and prove new concepts. If they're successful within a small test customer base (a BIG “if"), then the new product gets rolled out to all customers by the broader organization.
This may sound like an obvious point, but what's often overlooked is the amount of leverage product innovation teams usually have to impact lots of people's lives. To give you an idea of just how powerful a small group of clever people trying to change things up can be, here's a quick rundown of the most impressive results we've seen recently:
- whatsApp - 32 engineers, fastest growing service in history, $16B acquisition (!!!)
- instagram - 12 employees, $1B acquisition
- hidemyass - started by a 16 year old, mostly run by outsourced staff, $60m acquisition
- craigslist - ~25 people, #1 classifieds site in the world
- exploding kittens - 3 people, $8m raised to be the most popular kickstarter ever
So, small teams with big ideas is the story of innovation. That leads us to two questions: 1) who is in the innovation team? and 2) what do they do?
The anatomy of an innovation team
My background is in high tech software products, so this is a bit biased by that world, but the general roster of an innovation team usually includes some arrangement of the following roles:
Product Manager/Program Manager/Product Owner
The “idea” person who is tasked with having a deep understanding of the marketplace, competition, customer problems, etc. Above all, this person is directly accountable for the success of the product with customers. Steve Jobs was the product manager for the original iMac and for most other big innovations that came out of Apple for example. Most PMs I know, myself included, have gotten to this role after performing several of the other innovation roles in the past.
Project Manager/Scrum Master
The person who makes sure the product development is on time/scope/budget. Obsessive levels of organization and outstanding communication skills are basic job requirements for this role. There is usually a lot of power in this role to make other team members miserable in order to meet the diabolical time/scope/budget goals of the project. However, the best project managers have a way to earn respect from the team instead of imposing authority over them. The worst ones are the inverse.
This person, in theory, helps the team figure out if the solutions being invented can be supported by the parent organization and what areas, if any, would need to change in order to accommodate them. In practice, lots of Business Analysts end up coaching and explaining these new inventions to various business stakeholders instead of the analysis mentioned above. I’ve never seen a BA role look and feel the same from company to company, but it seems to me like it's a wildcard role that usually is found in teams working on sustaining innovations.
The person making sure that each incremental version of the product that is being produced works flawlessly. Being extremely detailed oriented is a must have for this position, but specific skills depend wildly on the type of product being developed. The productivity of the QA person is usually an accurate reflection of the caliber of the innovation team and the maturity of the product. Bad teams usually have horrendous QA processes and vice versa.
The person making the actual product, brick by brick or bit by bit. Highly technical skills are the norm here, although the best engineers I've ever met were often quite well-balanced people who had other interesting hobbies. The stereotype of the basement dweller who codes all day long is not all that accurate, at least not for great engineers.
In theory, the problem solver who comes up with the ideal process and product to solve a customer problem. In practice, most designers are regarded as the artists who make things pretty. The best ones quickly overcome that bias by being customer-centric and experimental, but I've met a fair share of designers who actually enjoy doing graphics on a soon to be released product and that's all they're interested in.
So there you have it, a small sample of who is actually working in inventing ways to make things better for people inside companies worldwide. As the great educator Margaret Mead once put it: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." How do you see yourself fitting in this picture? The world needs as many innovators as possible!