Mission Acceleration: Assemble Your Avengers

The right team will move your innovation effort forward. Here's how to build it

Brian Miller

February 18, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the third in a weekly series explaining the common beginner-steps needed to get an innovation practice off the ground or improve an existing innovation practice. Find our first post, explaining the goals of implementing a structure to guide innovation and training workers how to use it, here. The second installment, on how to create an innovation thesis to guide your team’s activities, is here

The surest way to get your innovation practice off the ground is to assemble your Avengers – a diverse team working together to solve hard problems. Here are some ideas for doing it, remembering that while an innovation system encompasses problems, technologies, and ideas – it’s powered by people and their abilities, skills, and knowledge to operate within the right structure, processes, and culture (more here from the first post in this series). Human nature being what it is, it can be challenging to get your team aligned around a different way of working.

No organization can change overnight. There is plenty of research to illustrate how changes in human behavior take time even with the right scaffolding and incentives. Yet a small team can punch way above its weight with the right methods for making progress and tools to measure it.

Once you’ve established why your innovation practice exists and assembled the right team,  it’s time to figure out exactly what elements (and people) within your organization need to be connected, when, and where. Do this while increasing the volume of opportunities for the organization and the velocity of learning and progress.

Assemble a minimum viable team

This will look different in each organization that adopts it, but the initial innovation team is typically and intentionally small, somewhere between seven and 14 people, including informal allies. Some have started smaller and been highly successful, like the Defense Logistics Agency Technology Accelerator. However, additional personnel, even those contributing part-time or in their spare time, simply increase the probability of early and transformative wins. This is critical to maintaining buy-in and support from leadership and – just as important – the internal and external customers of the Innovation Pipeline® (e.g., capability developers, end-users).

  • The senior champion is a General Officer (GO) or the civilian equivalent (Senior Executive Service) unafraid to challenge the status quo – and if they made it to this level of seniority while doing so, they also know precisely how the legacy system works in practice (vice on paper) and they have a strong network to navigate it. 
  • The full-time innovation project leaders (at least two to start) are generalists with a broad and diverse range of experience and networks to draw from. They have always leaned into their job, leaving it better than they found it. They are disciplined yet creative, rigorous yet personable, and are probably seen as a “fast riser” or “up and comer,” despite a reputation for comparatively risky decisions within the legacy execution system.
  • The part-time problem scoping liaison (at least three to start) are natural collaborators with a growth mindset. These team members are always looking to make improvements wherever they go and seem to find opportunities at every turn. If you ask them for information, they’re forthcoming. Instead of who is it for?, they ask, when do you need it? and what comes next?
  • A procurement or contracts specialist who is known as the go-to person in your organization and will not shy from the creativity required to be innovative. They get things done faster than their peers, seemingly without breaking a sweat.
  • Numerous on-call allies with whom you have a personal relationship, who are tired of the status quo and would jump at the chance to stealthily use their expertise to help change organizational performance. 

Give them clear responsibilities 

-- Senior Champion: This is the most important connection to the traditional execution system within your organization. This individual provides top cover for the team, and owns the innovation thesis or purpose driving the innovation practice. The champion also removes barriers and creates workarounds (often via policy or doctrinal exceptions) when the team inevitably runs into a bureaucratic roadblock. 

-- Innovation Project Leader: Leads individual innovation projects, ushering them through the Innovation Pipeline® from problem sourcing and curation to the scaling of a new capability, like a mini CEO. They will:

  • Identify and test critical assumptions to validate solutions
  • Use proven methods for making progress (e.g., Lean Startup, design thinking, beneficiary discovery, minimum viable product testing, root cause analysis, user experience and user interface testing, rapid prototyping)
  • Rely on proven tools for recording and measuring progress (e.g., Investment Readiness Level, Adoption Readiness Level)
  • Alert the senior champion if something is stuck and a workaround or exception is needed

-- Problem Scoping Liaison: This is a part-time role, performed while the individual is already embedded in offices, divisions, or external organizations served by the innovation system. They are your eyes and ears, working to continuously:

  • Collect innovation opportunities
  • Scope innovation projects through a formulaic, easily trained methodology
  • Recruit the right people to innovation projects based on their relationship to prioritized problems (e.g., end-users, subject matter experts, even saboteurs)

-- On-call Allies: Finally, you have your allies, almost like assets planted deep behind enemy lines, waiting for your call. They are essential to achieving that goal of delivering at least one new capability within 15 months. Until your innovation practice has an alluring reputation, you’ll have to recruit these people through personal relationships. The common persona is someone tired of the status quo, with a growth mindset, an intrepreneurial spirit, who has been heroically innovating, and is dying to work within a team of like-minded heroes. Just imagine how the Avengers come together in a Marvel movie. In a way, they simply just find each other. These team members can provide:

  • IT for security and network integration
  • Engineering support to evaluate technical feasibility of new capabilities
  • Legal, policy, and human resources experts for essential advice

Train them

Now, your Avengers need a common framework and language for innovation. Your core team will be moving faster than ever before (and get uncomfortable doing so). They need the innovation basics to ground them in their new world, accelerate collaboration, and reduce the uncertainty associated with innovating. For starters, train them:

  • How to conduct beneficiary discovery interviews
  • How to turn assumptions into facts by generating and testing critical hypotheses
  • How to articulate and properly refine problems that others, without domain knowledge, can understand and contribute to solving (problem curation)
  • How to identify and recruit a coalition of stakeholders around each problem
  • The basics of Lean Startup and design thinking 

Next, you’ll operationalize the pipeline by generating deal flow in the form of problems, curating them, discovering solutions by testing critical hypotheses, then incubating and transitioning solutions into enduring capabilities. 

Other posts