Four Ways to Increase Product Collaboration Between Innovation and Execution Teams
April 7, 2020
Businesses grow through product. And they grow faster when they can attract and retain Product Thinkers with the ability to dream up the next great idea and/or build the next great product. But keeping these people motivated and giving them the structure to be successful is critical. Best-in-class Product Thinkers generally seek out organizations that are purpose driven and give them access to meaningful work—the combination of these two factors allow for the development of impactful products.
In an effort to bring expert Innovators in, many companies, including clients of ours, have given Innovation teams (whether in the main business or in an Innovation Hub), full ownership of concept generation. These teams are set with the task of thinking a little differently from everyone else, to deal in ideas and out-the-box, off-the-wall new directions the wider business could take. They are idea factories, churning out countless concepts in an effort to produce the next sector-defining product.
For the purposes of this article, this is how we are defining Innovators—the individuals officially tasked with an organization’s innovation efforts. Executors, on the other hand, we are defining as those whose main metric of success is the tangible development of new product features, improved code, etc. These definitions are intentionally limited because it shows the flawed binary thinking that happens across silos.
This way of thinking and working unfortunately has a trend of creating two major problems: organizational knowledge transfer decreases and there ends up being a surplus of ideas that the Executors in the main business don’t have the resources to act upon. As time goes by, this creates almost-irreconcilable silos. For Product Thinkers who want to see the impact of their work, time and the lack of ability to get ideas validated, tested, and released causes frustrations that can lead to either a lack of motivation or a desire to move to new pastures.
In essence, silos, and the negative impact they can have on executing, show that it is a mix of great people and a well-designed process that lead to better products.
The problem of siloed workplaces is something we’ve encountered time and time again at Connected. Lacking the people, processes, and structure to build the right software-powered products and build software-powered products right is an issue that exists across sectors. It is why our model has been so impactful for so many of our partners—we understand the challenges and how to move ideas out of desk drawers and into development.
Alongside our expertise as Product Thinkers with the ability to dream up and execute the next great product, we also utilize our multi-disciplinary consultancy model to help our partners gain the multi-unit backing that is imperative if you are to actually get things done in a massive organization—a model we think of as the Connective Tissue between business units.
Having worked in this space for 7 years and having partnered with over 20 organizations across 5+ sectors, I’ve gathered all of my insights together in a handy guide to effectively leveraging a Connective Tissue approach in your organization.
1) Reach across silos
When it comes to vendors, procurement will advise department heads to distribute the workflow among different partners. Although this seems wise from a risk-mitigation standpoint, it lessens the value for the organization. So often the problem isn’t the ideas or abilities of teams within the organization, it is getting things moving.
A lean partner team that works with multiple stakeholders at different levels and within different business units gives each idea and project a greater set of advocates for the work. And a great partner working to do this can reach across silos in a way that feels unobtrusive and fits with the priorities and workflow of leaders. This partner should also open up the organization’s knowledge-sharing system so that they exist long after any particular project is finished.
The reason such a system works so well is for the same reason that organizations hire partners in the first place: the partner isn’t limited by the barriers of your organization’s four walls, they can offer a bird’s eye view of what works and where the blockages happen, and they are designed to encourage out-the-box, off-the-wall thinking.
A strong partner strategy is critical to business strategy. No organization does everything alone anymore. There are too many different areas of expertise to upscale and emerging technologies to keep up with and deliver in your day-to-day role. Reaching other business units can begin with a partner strategy that dovetails with business strategy, not one that works against it.
2) Start slow to move fast
It can always feel tempting to jump right in when you begin working with a new partner. Having understood their offering and made an assumption that they can add value to a project or team, the immediate want is for them to get to work. However, a well-designed immersion phase is necessary. Get the primary and secondary stakeholders from across the business in a room and set the aims properly. From there, loop in the tertiary stakeholders—company influencers who will not only serve as advocates of the project, but help endorse and market it as it moves through the company gaining buy-in from tertiary stakeholders is often overlooked. But it is these individuals who influence the rest of the organization—they can stop the immediate push backs and create energy and excitement that becomes infectious.
If your aim is a successful project, immersion can be done at pace. But if you truly want an impactful project, you need to take the time to ensure your team and your partner’s team are seen as valuable in different areas of the business.
Taking this extra time means that any recommendations, prototypes, or product launches aren’t sidetracked at the last minute by competing interests or existing limitations. Getting everyone involved ensures that projects are deemed valuable and feasible before unnecessary investment is made in something the organization isn’t designed to act upon.
3) Rethink success in terms of impact (and reward accordingly)
One of the major blocks that occurs within an organization is the growing frustration that comes to exist between Innovation and Execution teams. Innovation teams are built lean and are judged on getting a few ideas through to beta, whereas Execution teams have groups of people working to improve the product offering of the organization. The problem is complex to solve but simple to identify: the two teams care about different things in their day-to-day work.
Execution teams often find themselves guided by vanity metrics, such as the number of sprints completed or total lines of code submitted, in order to appease their managers (irrespective of whether this leads to better products or not). This means that they focus on the fully articulated briefs that they have mandated to them by their bosses, leading them to be at full capacity and being unable to act upon the concepts that Innovation teams have generated. At present are judged by outputs, rather than outcomes, which limits the impact of their work.
This game of “Pass the Parcel” with who is responsible for not building innovative products causes both teams to distrust one another and makes working together more difficult. In this conundrum the only solution is to create an institutional and personal reason to work together; in layman’s terms, a reward system.
This isn’t a quick process, it requires a re-evaluation of what value looks like—particularly the value your product development partner is tasked with adding. Rather than assuming that there is a flaw in the quality of your innovation or execution teams, reframe the problem, demand that your product development partner do more than build a couple of prototypes, and reward final product impact. From there, create KPIs that aren’t tick boxes. Instead, ensure that Innovation teams are rewarded for working effectively with Execution teams, meaning they don’t just overload them with ideas or concepts, they work to understand their workflow and support accordingly. And ensure that Execution teams are rewarded for being more thoughtful in their process and for working more closely with Innovation teams to build the right product.
4) Create role swaps
So much of the value of a product development partner is that its teams are made up of people who spend their time in different problems, allowing them to see how technologies, ideas, and products in other sectors can be applied to the problem at hand. These teams also see the value of each other’s work more clearly because they shed the binary definitions of Innovators and Executors. With everyone close to the problem and working together to solve it, individuals and groups are able to apply a multi-disciplinary approach in their day-to-day work.
Working closely together creates empathy and understanding for one another’s work, and it’s the best way to get things moving across silos. To replicate this in your own organization, let members of the Innovation team follow an idea through to Execution and create a short-term role for them within your Execution team, here they can input their insights to help build a better product, as well as gain a clearer understanding of the challenges the “other side” face.
On the flip side, pull an Executor for a couple of months and have them support the Innovators workshops, providing them with a clearer sense of the technical feasibility of their ideas. Then as ideas progress, have them as an Execution Lead on the product, because having had them work on the project from day one will make them a better advocate as the idea moves across the silos.
Role swaps removes the us vs them mentality that begins to build up in silos. It shows that the grass isn’t always greener and that everyone’s end goal is ultimately the same!
The Innovation Hub model is designed to create impactful products by attracting Product Thinkers in search of meaningful work and purpose-driven organizations. But in its current state, it’s extremely difficult for it not to accidentally reinforce siloed ways of thinking. As Innovators and Executors ourselves, we at Connected understand just how important it is for people to see the impact of their work.
As we’ve matured as a business, we’ve seen first hand just how much of our role is creating momentum within organizations. Our multi-touchpoint approach, alongside our product expertise, works to blur the lines between silos and bring product innovation to life.
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