Why You Don’t Split Your Innovation Teams By Stage

(this post originally appeared on the Neo blog)

Andy Weissman of Union Square Ventures wrote a piece the other day on chaos theory and startups. His conclusion was that making decisions, and deciding how you make decisions, is of the utmost importance.

There are many approaches to making decisions. My current thinking can roughly be described as “lead with vision, but reality check with experiments.” I use frameworks such as jobs-to-be-done, design thinking and lean startup to help ground me. But that is not the only way.

Regardless of method, the need to make smart, fast decisions is universal.

This fact applies to new products as well as new companies.

I was speaking to an executive at a well-known company about team structure for an innovation group. The question was whether you could have one team validate an idea, and then shift the work over to a “production” team to implement and ship.

I argued that you should have at least *some* of the initial team remain with the product, especially the product manager/leader. When you emerge from an initial vetting phase for a product, the decisions are just beginning, not ending. If you have not spoken to customers directly, if you have not seen the results of your experiments, and if you have not experienced the nuances of your value tests, how can you make good decisions? How would you know what was important, what to cut or compromise, what to keep, and where the big risks remain that need further learning? Splitting the teams sounds like a sure-fire way to get bloat in your production work.

When I say bloat, I am talking about costs as well as features. This is true even if the people on your production team are cheaper. I’d rather have a small, elite team punch out something focused and valuable, than hand a fledgling product over to a confused group. Confusion — the inability to make fast, well-informed decisions — leads to wasteful time delays, feature expansion, maintenance headaches and ultimately a customer who is as confused as the team itself. Or more likely, a non-customer.

Lastly, an important part of Andy’s message is about speed, not just about the quality of decisions. You need both. So the key is to find decisive women and men who are comfortable balancing intuition, data and the wisdom of their team. Then you need to keep them involved in the entire lifecycle of getting something off the ground.

  • Absolutely agreed. I would add that it’s also about accountability. The initial team cannot defer to the execution team when something is not working. That way, everybody has a stake in the product and the chances of success should be higher.