During the pandemic, the crisis gave most workplaces much-needed jolts of urgency to reboot outdated management systems. One brilliant outcome we saw emerge were leaders and teams that began collaborating more intensively. Teammates spoke with greater transparency and authenticity, because frankly, there was no time to waste when it came to innovative solutions.
In our research efforts at Go Forward to Work, our global research initiative developed in partnership with Harvard Business School, we saw a surprising influx of innovation. Adversity was proving to be a crucible of creativity and problem-solving. But, will it last?
We can't afford to lose such hard-won momentum. Teams are under immense pressure to innovate. It’s key to winning in business today. Companies need to iterate fast out of necessity to stay ahead of the competition. Remember when Instacart shook Amazon? Or when Whole Foods disrupted Safeway? Airbnb and Uber have altered entire markets.
So, I sat down with one of the world’s top business innovators, a forward thinker long before the pandemic hit, to talk about innovation and teamwork and the future of business. His name is Jim McKelvey.
Anyone interested in business innovation will recognize the name or have read his book The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. And, if you’ve purchased an item from a small business owner and swiped your card on a mini white square at checkout, you’ve used McKelvey’s product, the Square Card Reader.
McKelvey and I unpacked the innovation process, and both agree that in teams there’s no absence of innovative ideas, but rather, team members are often unwilling to speak courageously in group settings.
Innovative Teams Speak Boldly
According to McKelvey, innovation is not a single event; it’s a series of real-world problems solved in brand-new ways. At each step, a team must persevere through the pathless jungle of innovation, and that takes courage.
The idea for the Square Card Reader came to McKelvey in 2009 when he couldn't accept an Amex card payment from a customer who wanted to buy a glass-blown faucet from another small business operation he ran. So McKelvey went to his friend Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, with the idea. Together they built an innovative solution that transformed the payments marketplace. The company surpassed $1 billion in subscription revenue in 2019.
To invent the Square Card Reader the process they used led to McKelvey’s Innovation Stack method. An Innovation Stack is a series of interlocking inventions. “If you try to do something truly new, you will encounter a series of new problems.” said McKelvey. “The solution to one problem leads to another problem, sometimes several,” The problem-solution-problem chain repeats until you end up with a collection of both independent and interlocking inventions. Or you fail.
One prime example of innovation stacking that McKelvey writes about in his book, is the Wright brothers invention of the airplane. It required a whole swath of innovation because they didn’t just have to figure out how to lift off and fly. Once in the air, they had a new problem, how do you steer? They had to figure that out, too.
To build a truly innovative product, service, or system, a team must start from nothing. They must be willing to solve a problem where no one knows the answer. Creative problems require courageous dialogue. People must speak boldly. But in many workplaces, the environment isn’t nurtured to be safe. The risk of colleague scrutiny outweighs the reward of sharing.
Simply asking teams to speak courageously won't work. If team leaders want this result, they have to put the prerequisites in place, piece by piece.
One practice we teach to teams at Ferrazzi Greenlight is the Yoda Moment. We teach teams to use the phrase “Yoda Moment” as a prompt to let their peers know they are about to pitch a wild idea. This simple technique defuses the fear of sharing bold ideas.
We also teach teams to designate Yodas when engaging in creative discussion. Two or three people are made the Yodas of the meeting. Their job is to interrupt with Yoda Moments. For example, Julia raises her hand mid-meeting: "Excuse me, Yoda Moment—Does anyone actually understand how our competitor's product is threatening our business?”
Iterate Rapidly and Speed Communication by Going Agile
McKelvey said the early days of Square’s hardware was an exercise in rapid innovation. The hardware the team was developing changed every week. “I would design and build different readers in response to something I’d learned from the last batch,” McKelvey told me.
At Go Forward to Work, during the pandemic we saw a ramp up of agile teams. It’s also a structure we predict will outlast pandemic times. Agile teams work in small spurts of focused activity concentrating their efforts on one project at a time. The agile method allows teams to work more closely, streamline communication, and iterate faster. Using this method, a team can achieve the outcomes they want faster or fail faster and pivot.
One company McKelvey’s actively leading today is Invisibly, which is a platform that allows people to put their data to work for them. Right now, anyone can use your online date for power and profit. So, Invisibly is a centralized data advocate so you can control your data.
During our chat, McKelvey told me how he recently advised Invisibly’s COO to stop innovating because the already-working product gated the significant level of innovation the team was trying to unlock.
Agile teaming and faster communication is one way to get to an outcome faster or know when to move on. This saves a team from wasting the two most precious commodities in business: time and money.
And again, with agile teams, it’s the speed of communication between teammates that is the underlying key to personal, team, and company success.
Creative Ideas Happen Frequently, but Aren’t Shared Enough
If you're a team leader, how safe do you think the members of your team feel in your meetings? Since communication is critical to business innovation the practice of building psychological safety is crucial. It requires respect, trust, and empathy.
McKelvey said that people hold back from sharing many innovative ideas because of peer scrutiny. He related common communication fears to his artistic work blowing glass. "Working with hot glass is similar: you get one moment to make a move and you never get that moment back. As that moment approaches, I get nervous.”
Research shows that public speaking is the top fear for most people and it’s due to the riskiness of peer scrutiny. Speaking up in meetings can be threatening. But that depends on the group dynamic. Innovation, and certainly, a winning team can’t have people on it that don’t feel safe to share.
Strengthening team communication is a common hurdle the Ferrazzi Greenlight team is brought into to help companies tackle. Friction points tend to exist in work environments that are pandemic fatigued, low energy, or short on trust and psychological safety. And while we see virtual communication as a positive way to create more connection, for many teams, the shift to remote systems has caused communication breakdowns.
One of the most effective and simple strategies we use to amplify the types of bold conversations that need to take place for innovation to happen is to use breakout rooms. Psychological safety is amplified in smaller group settings.
Without a culture with embedded practices to promote courageous speech, it simply won't happen. And in the end, for most teams, it’s what’s holding everyone back from real innovation.
But as evidenced by McKelvey and what we’ve seen with teams at Ferrazzi Greenlight, any team can achieve truly explosive results when they become fearless to share.