Innovation Is An Extreme Team Sport

Watching a group of figure skaters practicing for a few weeks made me think about how great businesses and teams work. Figure skating isn’t exactly an extreme sport, some of the practice sessions could be classified as extreme.  Everyone on the ice is trying to warm up their jumps and spins in the same limited amount of space and time. Similar to business where everyone has their own personal and professional goals that they want to accomplish.
Falling in business is like falling in figure skatingAt the practice session I was watching the number of skaters varied from week to week along with the skater’s capabilities. On days where there were higher skilled skaters out, the majority of the other skaters worked harder and landed more jumps. Same thing happened when there were more skaters out, everyone would be skating harder and landing more of their jumps. This worked up to a certain maximum point and then the results were completely reverse.  With more than the optimum number on the ice the amount and quality of the group’s skating went down significantly.

This is the same in companies. When you bring on board great high performing people that are hard workers they motivate everyone else. The more great people you have the better, up to a certain point and then you get diminishing returns.

This week when I was watching the group the interactions were magical. The skill sets of the skaters were varied and everyone was working quite hard. It was great to see most of the skaters land jumps that they had been having difficulty with in previous weeks.  To an outsider, it looked like chaos on the ice but to those who saw the dynamics it was energizing. The skaters that knew each other and knew each other’s styles and abilities were able to talk, laugh, look out for each other and help one another. Those that were newer to the group were doing well but were a bit more cautious than those that understood the unwritten rules and dynamics amongst the skaters. This is exactly how companies work!

With the right number of employees, at varying capabilities, that, for the most part, know one another you get results, happy employees, communication and growth.  This is what you need for innovation – the right mix of people and culture so that it is great to watch and energizing to be around. Everyone is achieving their individual goals easier and more pleasantly then had they been on their own or with fewer people in the mix. And the team walks away feeling great about their accomplishments and ready to take on more.

The innovation team does not have to be together or get together every day or every week to know one another or to benefit from having one another; just like these skaters. It doesn’t take long to create bonds with a common goal in mind for those that are dedicated and passionate.

At any point this dynamic can fall apart. It just takes one skater not apprehending another’s move for there to be a major crash – into one another or into the boards. The same in innovation teams, if you aren’t paying attention you could hit one another or crash into the wall without meaning to.  Finding the right balance takes time and once you have it keep working on maintaining that balance.