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The raw truth about elite & innovative teams.

“We don’t have to be smarter than the rest; we have to be more disciplined than the rest.” Warren Buffet

Far too many have a belief that successful innovation is dependent on establishing and protecting a culture and set of beliefs that readily accepts failure, there is a freedom to experiment, it is safe to voice thoughts, its not hierarchical and highly collaborative. Or put it another way, the equivalent to a corporate “free for all” where discipline is a death sentence to creativity, and where accountability is a “finance function”. The fact is that these typical behaviour patterns associated with innovation aren’t enough and fall well short of what a team need to exhibit to be successfully innovative. My suggestion is that those that think otherwise are encouraged to go and work for your competitors as quickly as possible.

Of course, many of the characteristics I have mentioned above are essential in an innovative team, but they need to be carefully counterbalanced by a few harder core practices – namely discipline and accountability. These provide the fundamental framework that separates the wheat from the chaff. These two basic but hard principles run deep through successful companies’ bones and are what fundamentally enables them to navigate the complexity of innovation, guiding them to success. It is remarkably easy to be mediocre – it is phenomenally difficult to be excellent.

The stark, bare truth is that highly successful innovative teams are allergic to incompetence, they are diligent disciplinarians, unsparingly candid and expect strong leadership.

There are no short cuts to building these teams.

Why we think firms and teams within firms are different from the highest performing sports teams, top performing hedge funds, the world’s leading architects, top medical physicians and the world’s secretive and envied special forces – frustrates me. “Elitism is the slur directed at merit by mediocrity” said Sydney Harris – he was bang on. The fact is, it is damn hard being in and maintaining your position in a high-performance elite team and if you believe that these teams are a free for all, as mentioned above, where there is minimal accountability you had better think again.

Innovation and the corresponding culture is misunderstood. Yes, they are remarkably tough to work in BUT at the same time they are the most fulfilling places to ever find yourself and once you’ve experienced it you will never go back!

These unique and rare corners of the world accept failure but on their strict non-negotiable terms. They allow themselves the odd miss but only because of their high standards and expectations they set themselves. The innovation process and quest for excellence is constantly purging mediocrity, shoddy thinking, slap dash work and poor management. The rumours of the high expectations and standards from such firms as McKinsey, Boston Patriots, Apple, Goldmans and a SEAL team, are all TRUE. You have to live and breathe the habits of an elite innovative team to ever stand a chance of being one.

Failure is only ever tolerated if it is in a robust framework of discipline and accountability. These professionals understand the concept of productive failure and unproductive failure. Productive failure is achieved by teams who rigorously pick their experiments – if they fail the information and knowledge the experiment yields is more than the cost. With this in mind, how many unproductive experiments do great innovators have – not many – they insist and ensure they are productive and aligned to their goals. Scientists developing drugs are the masters of this. They are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They rarely pretend to know the answer up front, they experiment to learn rather than find the magic knock out product. The knock-out product is an outcome of learning, discipline and a well curated process of innovation.

Right upfront these teams will establish what the criteria of success and failure is and they will measure constantly. Thereby knowing when to pivot or kill a project is clearly defined and understood by everyone involved, accelerating agility and the chances to adapt rapidly to the changing variables that surround them. Consequently, being part of this culture will require you to entertain some fairly unreasonable ideas and standards. That social contract that binds the team establishes the rules of engagement and the values of the membership. The leaders are expected to take feedback, ideas and data and then make the call with the team – who collectively unambiguously commit to the goal. Leaders need to be in the teams and never cut themselves off. This inclusive, as opposed to exclusive behaviour will drive collective accountability, collaboration and ensures everyone owns the victory or shares the failure. Remember the teams take the risks, the leaders take the blame.

As leaders and with these observations in mind, be careful what you wish for. Being innovative is not easy and requires you to ensure that discipline and accountability runs deep through your team and that there is absolutely no room for anything but the highest standards and expectations between one another. Achieving this will remove all barriers that stand in your way and you will achieve amazing things.

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