Riding it Out or Reinventing

by Ron Potter

U.S. Companies Lose Hope for Quick Rebound From Covid-19”  This was a headline in the Wall Street Journal the other day.  Buried in the body of the article was the statement, “Executives who were bracing for a months-long disruption are now thinking in terms of years. Their job has changed from riding it out to reinventing.”  On the same day (unrelated to the WSJ article) this cartoon appeared

I thought the cartoon was very appropriate because I’ve seen so many companies in my consulting career say they’re innovative but act like the cartoon.

Leaders Support Innovation

Leaders are not usually the innovators!  Good leaders support the innovators on their teams.

Let’s take a look at how innovation happens from a Team Leadership Culture framework.

Team Innovation

Team innovation can be the most difficult to pull off but at the same time the most rewarding as well.  However, it does take a few prerequisites for it to work.

Team Size

Many studies have determined that the best size of a decision-making team is seven, plus or minus two.

Once you get above nine people on a team, the ability to reach commitment on any given topic is greatly diminished.  There are just too many factions possible with 10+ people.

If you have fewer than five team members, it’s too easy for the team to form factions of three people vs. one person.  Even though that one person may have the most innovative idea, they will feel outnumbered and it’s too easy for the faction of three to treat them as an outlier or put pressure on them to go along with the majority.

Either way, the dynamics may be killing the innovation.

Keep decision-making teams to seven people, plus or minus two.

Team Attributes

TREC is the outline that brings the right attributes to an innovative team.

Truth.  Being able to speak the truth to each other without fear of reprisal is necessary for innovative teams.

Respect.  Each team member must be self-aware enough to know that their perspective is only a perspective.  It is not “the truth”.  It is not the only way of looking at an issue.  It’s only their perspective and each member has a valid perspective.  If the team trusts that all perspectives are valid, innovation is more likely to happen.

Elegance.   Coming up with an innovative solution that is also elegant (simple, understandable, actionable) is the best solution.

Commitment.  If the team is able to share the truth with respect, commitment can happen.  Even if your perspective was different (or even opposing) to the final direction, commitment means that no matter what, you express your commitment to the solution.  You’re able to do this because you were a member of the team that took all the perspectives into account and “committed” to a team solution.

Team Dynamics

If innovation is the goal, team dynamics becomes extremely important.  Teams have been conditioned to come together for a given amount of time (usually an hour), encouraged to follow the agenda, and finally, make decisions depending on the discussion or reports.  This feels very structured and efficient.  It’s just not good for innovation.

Innovative teams have a different dynamic.

  • They will start as a whole team to discuss the areas of possible innovation.
  • All the perspectives are shared, at least in an outline form.
  • The team then breaks up into smaller teams.  These can be as small as two individuals but should never be larger than three.
  • Deep Work is required.  Deep Work requires spending distraction-free time on the topic, pushing your cognitive capabilities to the limit.
  • Return to the full team with this new Deep Work perspective to hear what we’re learning and then discuss directions we could possibly head.
  • Rinse and Repeat.  Continue this large team, small team (maybe different small teams with each iteration) dynamics until the team begins to zero in on an innovative approach.
Team Decisions

Remember that the word “decide” means that you narrow your options down to a small number of choices (preferably two) and then you put one of those options to death.  You kill it.  You eliminate it.  You stop spending resources on it.  The commitment to the team direction should be powerful enough to put all of your resources towards the chosen innovative approach.

A Culture of Innovation

Moving the culture of an organization towards innovation usually centers around one word.


As we’ve talked about the word “decide” lately, I hope it has become clear that the word decide means that you put one option to death in order to put your resources toward a different option.

Leaders and leadership teams will often decide on a direction but neglect to let the organization below them know that they’ve decided not to spend resources on other options.

Organizations are full of people who love the security of their job.  They’ve spent years learning the job, getting better at the job, and feeling secure that they can go to work every day and do the job.  They’re “secure.”

But, if you are now saying to them, “We’re heading in a different direction and we don’t know yet where it will all lead.”  They can often feel scared or at least insecure.  They may or may not mention this insecurity but they will wonder

  • Do I have the skill set to do the new job?
  • Will my job, group, division be eliminated?
  • Will I be asked to relocate to a different department or location?
  • Am  I back to ground zero in terms of my skills and worth to the company?

Without any clarity on these and other topics, people will tend to come to work every day and continue to do what they’ve always done.  They’ll seek security in doing the known rather than be lost in the unknown!

Open, Transparent, Humble

In times like these (which means now, in our current environment) it’s important that leadership is open with the organization.  Let them know everything that you know.

Be Transparent.  If people feel like they’re not getting the whole story, they’ll either go back to what they’ve always done or abandon ship.  Your best people, the ones you need the most will abandon the ship first.

Be humble.  Don’t give them the impression that you have all the answers when you don’t.  Let them know that you and the team are doing their best with uncertain circumstances.  Taking this approach will also bring forth more innovative ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise hear.


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