Responsibility Based on Problems Leads to Innovation

When I interview job candidates the first thing I look for is problem solving. I’d rather hire a good designer, developer, writer, etc. who is flexible and great at problem solving than someone who might write flawless code or award-winning design.

At my last job, I structured the team around problems, not roles. That means I hired designers who could write the mark-up code and developers who knew their way around great design. A team member’s responsibility wasn’t tied to their role, it was tied to who was best suited to solve a problem and come up with a solution.

At my current job, I’m working to create similar organizational change. At most larger agencies, you have set roles and teams. This means predefined responsibilities based on an employee’s defined role and solutions that always map to that role. But if responsibilities are structured around solving a problem, you don’t limit the solutions and employees become mush more collaborative problem solvers. What we’re finding is instead of having large teams simultaneously tackling a lot of projects, small teams focused on a fewer number of projects gets better results.

A few weeks ago the Harvard Business Review published an essay on the importance of small nimble teams over formal processes. http://blogs.hbr.org/schrage/2011/12/quiet-but-unsubtle-innovation.html

I’m observing more large organizations giving greater resources and responsibilities to ever-smaller teams. Innovation initiatives that were once handled by dozens a decade ago are now run by only handfuls. The median size of the core innovation group has dropped from a football/soccer eleven to a basketball five. Less apparently enables more.

The author, Michael Schrage,  goes on to talk about how smaller teams can be more innovative and agile, and that the structure required for larger teams, creates inefficiency and bogs progress down.

My experience maps pretty closely to Michael’s arguments. The structure required for larger teams doesn’t necessarily hamper innovation, but as roles on larger teams get more specialized, it does impact the ability to solve problems quickly and often discourages innovation outside of that individual’s narrow band of responsibility.

 

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One comment

  1. I have hired over 200 people in 15 years. The believe most important question I have ever asked was “If your car won’t start, what are four other ways to get to work?’ Very few people could answer this during interviews.

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