Getting the right people doing the right jobs is one of the major challenges in a small, growing business. We each have our particular strengths and our favoured working styles. Teams need to evolve as the business develops, and getting it wrong will damage the chance of success.

Throughout my career I have met some of the most innovative and remarkable companies around the world, from university spin-outs to well established global majors. All of them successfully driving their business through innovation, and all with something to teach about the practice and process of innovation.

The right people at the right time

Photo by Artes Max

A couple of years ago when visiting McLaren, I met some of the F1 race team. They were talking about the way they need to carefully manage the drive for creativity at different stages of preparing a car for a race. In the early stages of developing a new component or car they need the widest possible range of engineering ideas to be explored. The wilder the better in the search for that little bit of ‘edge’. It is all about opening out and looking for new thinking.

As they begin to get into real development, they need to start making choices and closing down options to focus on the ones with the best chance of success. They can’t take every great idea through to production. And a bright idea that occurs after production has started can be a real problem to deal with. The creativity has to be more disciplined.

And when it comes to race day, they don’t want the team changing the tyres to have a great new idea to improve the process during the race. They need superbly drilled and honed execution.

The task defines the skills

Clearly, you need different people with different temperaments and skills for each task. The free-thinking engineer with the ability to look at a problem from a different perspective might not be the person you need to make sure that a pit-stop team can change all four tyres and adjust the front wing in under 3 seconds.

Switching from innovation to execution

It is pretty obvious that the same thing is true of all kinds of business; switching from innovation to execution is likely to need different people. And yet this is precisely where many innovative young companies have trouble. The team that can create the innovative product or service, solve the technical problems, and bring it to market, is not the same team that can grow and scale the company.

For innovator founders it can be particularly difficult. They may not be aware that they need to shift the balance of the team, they may not know how to identify and recruit the right people, and they might not know how to manage people who think very differently from them.

Culture shift is hard

I saw this in action in a challenger mobile phone company. Their initial business plan was to acquire new customers as quickly as possible, and they were very successful at it. Eventually, they started to mature and they needed to keep customers happy as well as acquire new ones. Recognising their need to focus on delivering long-term to customers, they recruited people from more established mobile phone companies to manage operations.

The clash between the buccaneering marketing types who had been growing the user base, and the serious engineering types running operations was titanic. Both were needed, but the leaders struggled to persuade them that they both needed to change their assumptions and ways of working. Their mutual suspicion and antagonism nearly pulled the company apart.

Successful and growing companies have to figure out how to switch backwards and forwards between innovation and execution. Each is vital and requires different skills, rarely found in the same person.

Plan for success

“when transforming a business, you have two choices – change the people or change the people!”

So it is a good idea to start planning for success as soon as possible. If your innovative company really is capable of rapid growth, what is your plan for switching from innovation to execution? Who is your team for that stage of the business? Can any of the existing team make the transition?

To quote a senior manager from my Unilever days; “when transforming a business, you have two choices – change the people or change the people!”.

An earlier version of this piece was published here



Making Progress Means Changing the Team
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