The Quintessential Blog

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October 14, 2017 BY PATRICK ALBINA

Designing without a Blueprint – Building Innovation Teams


Designing a fully integrated military telecommunications network is a highly complex undertaking, particularly when there is no established precedent or detailed blueprint. Does this sound like a job for a HPT…absolutely? But ‘high performing’ in what…innovation. Innovation is the creation of new products, processes and/or services by using new or existing scientific or technological knowledge, and providing a degree of novelty either to the developer, industry and/or the end-customer. Beyond the technical uncertainties of the design activity, there exist the challenges associated with the stakeholder community and the need to understand their positions, manage their expectations and address their interests. Should we be surprised that projects like these are so complex? With the advent of globalisation empowering readily available communications technology and social media, we are more interconnected with our stakeholders than ever. Research & Development (R&D) activities are no longer undertaken as a one-stop shop and there is often a need to leverage the know-how that is available internal and external to the organisation in order to bring the right technical knowledge together, to share risk and to innovate through diversified capabilities.


Being fully aware of the challenges ahead of them, Quintessential Consulting was engaged by this leading Global Aerospace Company at the project’s start-up to help create a culture of innovation – one that is collaborative and resilient to scrutiny that they will face from the outside world when pushing boundaries and challenging norms. Our Customer wanted to build a team culture that was agile and creative, one that could embrace the notion of serious play and experimentation, and have the ability to leverage uncertainty to enable them to find ways of breaking new ground. What was at stake…a design without precedent, the delivery to a new customer, and the implementation of a $650M+ integrated military telecommunications network. Due to the particularly uncertainties and ambiguities of this project, they needed to do things differently.


So how did Quintessential approach this…well, with the same mindset as our Customer, i.e., understand the underpinning principles, define the end goal, acknowledge that the end goal will inevitably change over time, and build the right team for the job. Quintessential designed and delivered the ‘Discovery’ phase of its HPT program using the following principles with which to build the inherent innovation capabilities of our Customer’s team:

  • Co-Creation. Collaboratively building the culture and productivity with the existing team members, then adapting and renewing it with each cohort of new team members
  • Cognitive Fitness. Equipping the project team with the self-awareness, skills and mindset to be agile and nimble in a dynamic environment
  • Co-existence. Enabling the project team to live its own culture, identity and ways of working, while remaining aligned with its stakeholders

Quintessential’s first task was to understand the Project’s culture by way of defining its actual state and projecting what its required state looks like. The resulting gap between actual and required, and corresponding desire to undertake the journey provided Quintessential the necessary information to design appropriate initiatives. Quintessential utilised The Leadership Cultural Survey© to assist with this assessment, enabling the 8 different elements of culture to be articulated and assessed. Furthermore, Quintessential was also able to compare the Customer’s start-up project culture to that of similar organisations who had been developing their culture for some time. This was a ‘litmus test’ for our Customer, enabling them to better understand how they were placed along their journey.


With a sound appreciation of our Customer’s existing culture, Quintessential was able to shape initiatives that best supported the process of co-creation, a concept that facilitates both the project’s leadership and the project team’s membership ability to collaboratively define, embed, assess and adapt the project’s culture, values and way of working throughout the project lifecycle. At the same time, Quintessential maximised the high level of diversity within the project team that spanned experience levels, technical discipline, industry background, cultural origin and gender balance. The co-creation process enabled the team’s diversity to be leveraged by establishing an environment that allowed strong relationships to form between the project’s team members, encouraging them to socialise their knowledge and undertake continual learning through experimentation, information sharing and story-telling. Such initiatives included:

On-Boarding. Quintessential developed a project specific on-boarding process, dovetailing it into our Customer’s on-boarding process. This enabled new team members to be brought to up to speed in a timely manner, whilst immersing them into the project culture. Part of the on-boarding process was providing them with the opportunity to challenge and contribute to the project culture and, with a fresh pair of eyes, critique and recommend changes and improvements to the project’s ways of working.

Project Bootcamp. Imagine what it would be like to be personally greeted by a member of the leadership team on your first day of a new project. This is followed by a series of induction activities that seamlessly and efficiently sets you up with all your admin, security, IT equipment and workstation needs in one day. The rest of the week is dedicated to project technical and cultural familiarisation activities, getting to know your teammates, Vendor site visits and social events. And yes…a free lunch with the Project Leadership Team is included on the first day – paid by the company. This is all part of Bootcamp design that Quintessential helped develop and run, the beginnings of our Client’s High Performing Team.

Employee Survival Guide. Quintessential developed a Survival Guide intended as the employees ‘pocket-book’ source of reference for the way things are done in the project. Not only did it document the project’s background, context, values and project stories, it was a record for all team members to reflect, remember and appreciate the contribution that they are making to the purpose of the project. Ultimately, the Survival Guide provides a means to capture what being a member of the team was all about and how it made them feel.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Cognitive Fitness

Cognitive fitness is a person’s capacity to assimilate new information, comprehend and maintain relationships and make rational observations and conclusions. Quintessential adopted a two-pronged approach that evaluated the various elements that form project capability, resulting the identification of the elements that require growth and development to enable an environment that fosters high cognitive fitness levels for innovation.

Capability Maturity Model (CMM). A CMM was tailored from a generic framework developed by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI), originally intended to assess the degree of formality and optimisation of process maturity. Quintessential used the principles of this model and extended the application to include, on a scale of 1 to 5, the 6 capability elements required for our Customer’s Project. Accordingly, Quintessential assessed our Customer’s 6 capability elements and was further able to benchmark them according to other projects in similar industry sectors. Transitions were defined that detailed what our Customer would need to do in order to move from their current level to the next.

Ways of Working (WoW). A WOW tracker enabled Quintessential to drill down on some of the capability elements and focus in on particular competencies that were deemed critical to cultural development, the growth of an innovation mindset and ultimately project success. Specific measures relating to cognitive fitness were identified and defined based on the CMM to assess the effectiveness of particular practices used by our Customer. These practices were selected as they supported a positive state of mind and a state of well being through on-going cognitive challenge, thereby equipping the team members to best take on the various demands of project life. The practices selected for the WoW tracker were associated with post event action learning, collaboration and socialisation.


From the outset Quintessential knew that the stakeholder community associated with our Customer’s project would need to be highly integrated for the best chance of success, both internally and externally. For this reason, Quintessential completed a stakeholder analysis that focused on highlighting the co-dependence of between the parties, acknowledging their differences and reinforcing the strength of the relationships to enable the momentum and desire to reach the common project outcome. Quintessential mapped out and articulated the diversity of views by focusing on commonalities rather than enforcing a mandated approach. Acknowledging and working with the various perspectives allowed our Customer to define, evolve and live their project culture, and importantly enable their desired environment to co-exist and integrate with their numerous stakeholders.

How is it all going?

The journey for our Customer has not been easy. It is clearly evident that the perception with regards to their seemingly relatively radical ways has attracted criticism and has taken an emotional toll associated with challenging norms and pushing boundaries. However, what is more evident is their belief in each other to see this challenge through, not to mention the resilience of the team to continue their ways as ‘outliers’. In fact, one might even say that this is their brand, and yes…they will not hesitate to tell you this with pride.

Regardless, the litmus test for the success of this approach still remains the traditional metrics of project outcomes and outputs, and whether they are on schedule, within budget and to the required specification. The project was still a work-in-progress during the release of this article. Notwithstanding, the following points are clear:

  • The project is on-schedule, with some aspects ahead of schedule The project remains within the allocated budget
  • The end-users of the product have been continually consulted as part of the process, they remain highly engaged
  • Our customer’s customer is very pleased – communication is open, information is transparent and learning is mutual
  • How does Quintessential know this? Well our customer’s customer has asked us to engage with them directly to perform a similar piece of work to develop their project team as a HPT.


With this project having a multitude of ‘moving parts’, it is not possible to alter one piece without affecting many other pieces. A HPT approach is preferable over a ‘comply & control’ paradigm as the latter approach cannot adequately address the dynamic nature of the project and the associated unintended and/or unexpected outcomes. Furthermore, technology progresses so fast that the design process constantly adapts as blueprints are not static and the end goal often cannot be fully defined at project startup. Consequently, project leaders are unable to rely on the notion of predictability and full project control. Rather, they must have faith in their team and the wider stakeholder community to allow solutions to emerge. However, this is not simple. It takes collaboration and a very high level of trust and transparency. Most of all it takes a high performing team where innovation is not a criteria, it’s a way of life.