One Hand on the Wheel: How to Steer Innovative Teams


We previously discussed how innovation is at the core of everything we do at Cubert. In that article, which you can read here, we defined innovation as creative ambition steered towards a measurable result. We then laid out the strategies we deploy to help nurture and optimize our company’s ecosystem so that it’s the kind of environment where innovation can thrive. But how do we know where to steer that creative ambition in the first place?

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation that works across every company or industry (if there was, innovating wouldn’t be very innovative, would it?). But there are ways to evaluate opportunities and make senior-level decisions about the direction a project needs to move towards.

“We’re receptive to the ideas of our team members,” explains Co-Founder Jeffrey Lee. “But have you ever been paralyzed by a blank page? Before we bring in the entire team for a project kick-off, Marius and I sit down to chart a course. We look for ways to keep one hand on the wheel so that our teams don’t hit a dead end.”

Innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s this guiding prompt that leads Cubert’s projects towards massive success. “When we launched FitTrack,” Lee says, “we looked at what was happening in the consumer smart scale market, as well as the trends that were happening in the fitness and wellness communities.”

“We found that smart scales were available, but at exorbitant price points and, often, providing inaccurate results. We listened to the community and discovered that consumers were resorting to expensive examinations in order to get an accurate picture of their health. And for the everyday individual, this just wasn’t an option if they wanted to know what was going on inside their own bodies.”

The opportunity to innovate? Produce smart scales that can provide a gold standard of accuracy similar to the types of tools in a medical professional’s office, but at a fraction of the cost of one of these visits. Then, provide the smart scales at a retail price that’s more accessible than less accurate competitors and make the technology convenient and easy to operate.

“We didn’t know how to get there, but we knew that’s where we wanted to end up. So we hired talented, curious, and creative people and gave them what they needed to make it happen.”

According to Lee, this kind of innovation is termed “routine innovation,” a phrase he credits to Gary Pisano, author and Harvard Business School professor.

“…routine innovation is denigrated as myopic at best and suicidal at worst. That line of thinking is simplistic. In fact, the vast majority of profits are created through routine innovation.” — Gary Pisano

Pisano describes other forms of innovation. There’s “disruptive innovation,” where a company creates a new business model without relying on a technological invention. There’s the opposite, called “radical innovation,” which relies solely on a technological invention. And there’s “architectural innovation,” which relies on inventing new business models as well as technologies. Deciding which innovative route to take depends on the type of value we set out to create.

At Cubert, we align our innovation strategy with our business strategy. As an incubator that aims to create consumer-centric brands with tremendous e-commerce potential, focusing (for now, at least) on routine innovation allows us to deliver incredible value to consumers. “Just like we did with FitTrack,” explains Lee, “the brands we’re building are answering demands that already exist in the marketplace. The opportunity to innovate is in finding ways to answer those demands in much more robust ways, or much more accessible ways, or much less expensive ways. Maybe all three. Maybe more.”

Once we know where we want to end up, we need to chart the way there. That’s where one hand on the wheel comes into play. “We give our teams a lot of freedom to operate autonomously and make their own decisions,” says Lee. “But it isn’t a total free-for-all!”

An innovation strategy isn’t complete until resources are properly allocated in such a way that allows teams to function effectively but without straying from the overarching business strategy. “We make sure we’re only expending our energy—and cost—in a way that supports what we’re trying to do.” By allocating resources in a way that supported routine innovation instead of, say, a radical innovation, FitTrack was able to enter the market while providing the value Cubert set out to create. And Cubert was able to capture enough of that value to generate impressive profits for our investors.

It takes an entire team to create an innovative brand, and it takes a “just right” ecosystem to create the conditions for innovation to occur. But above all, it takes effective leadership knowing how to steer the process—and the teams—in the right direction.

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