(Apologies for mangling this quote by Inigo Montoya, character in The Princess Bride, still one of the greatest movies.)
A mentor recently warned me about a new fad among corporate innovation folks:
I was talking with him about "innovation" teams. But apparently, cool kids don't call what we do "innovation" anymore. "Growth" is now the word du jour.
I appreciated the heads-up. Nobody wants to seem out of date and uncool. Plus, I'm not even sure I love the label of "innovation" myself.
But as for the broader, fad-y trend of just sticking a new label on our type of team, that left me shaking my head.
If "innovation" was a bad name, then I worry that "growth" may be an actively terrible replacement, unless we use it very carefully!
To be clear, there are always specific exceptions where it makes perfectly-good sense, a few of which I call out below. This is a general point for a broad "fashion" trend. And even then, debate me.
"Growth" as a team name is presumptious, confusing, and only a partial fit
"Growth" can come across as presumptuous
Let's assume you work for a for-profit company. In that case, it is literally the entire company's job either to grow revenues or cut costs, in other words: earn profits, directly or indirectly. Obviously the balance of teams focused on revenue vs. expenses will differ by org. But specifics aside, tons of teams try to achieve "growth."
Implication? If you claim "growth" for yourselves, you are implying that others don't actively focus on it, or that you do it better or bigger or more purely. Turns out, they will be justifiably grouchy at your appropriating their efforts and goals.
The real pity is that the team name "innovation" already causes this same problem. If we take "innovation" for ourselves, then we face the wrath of other teams who also work hard "to innovate" outright or to "be innovative" in tasks that others might consider ho-hum. Unless you have an exceptionally passive-aggressive organization or never interact with anyone outside your own team, you must have heard grumbles or confusion about a team title like "innovation."
"Growth" is no different.
"Growth" is a confusing term
"Growth" is actually even worse than merely meaningless. It actively causes role confusion.
The moniker "growth" already exists for other corporate team names, as does "Chief Growth Officer." If you were to ask me what a "growth" team is, I'd confidently think you are talking about Sales or Business Development teams, just using a more catchy term. The word may not be flexible enough for Innovation teams to squeeze into it too. Confusion is likely to abound.
One exception to this part of the rant: "Growth" appears like a perfectly descriptive name if your specific team focuses on growth hacking or on "going from the first 100 to the first 10,000 sales" or so, in other words on taking over businesses that have been proven out and growing the daylights out of them. In that case, you might truly be the most specialized growth specialists in your org. (But even, expect pushback. For example, others might balk because your growth happens on a smaller scale than theirs, nevermind your greater rate of growth.)
"Growth" only partly captures what we do
Yes, we do aim to generate new/ reinvigorated/ etc. growth. But is it our sole defining feature?
One might easily make the case that learning and de-risking are just as important. Same for building empathy, creating novel solutions that make the impossible possible, test & learn, and so on.
Only valuing growth is exactly the problem that keeps many operational teams from successfully innovating themselves. Effective innovation work takes patience, creativity, risk-taking, and stepping back from the presenting issue to the underlying forces. They have in common that they recognize growth as an outcome, not just as an activity per se.
To be clear: "Growth" is still a partial fit. It does matter for innovation teams. It's just not the only thing that counts.
"Growth" does work as a technical term
Though growth doesn't fit well to describe entire teams, it still has value to describe specific situations, when used with precision.
For example, I mainly consider myself a strategist by habit and mindset. When I speak with other strategists, I might specifically describe myself as a "growth strategist," as opposed to a "turnaround strategist," an "M&A specialist," or an expert in any number of other strategy sub-fields. In surgical uses like this, the term "growth" tosses aside its hazy generic definition and snaps sharply into focus. The contrast to other terms in a set lends it clarity.
So the point is not to discard the word "growth" outright. It's just to say that it doesn't make for a great team name.
Great, genius. Got anything better to offer?
If the problem with "growth" as a name is that it's meaningless, confusing, and only a partial fit, that sadly doesn't mean that there's a perfect alternative that achieves all the opposites. But we can do better!
You need different names for two types of innovation teams
On a hunt for better team names, let's first narrow the problem to "general-purpose" innovation teams. That's because naming "special-purpose" innovation teams is more straightforward.
Obviously, this is a crude, simplistic duality. Real teams are more fluid than being 100% only general- or special-purpose entities. I'm highlighting extremes to simplify the conversation, just as we seek out "extreme users" to earn clearer empathy.
Name "special-purpose" teams the obvious way. Minor edits only
Some innovation teams specialize in one thing only:
Think of accelerator teams, for example. Ditto for teams that only focus on M&A, open innovation, futures & trends, design research, prototyping, disruptive innovation (if used according to the word's actual meaning), the aforementioned growth hacking, and the like.
For special-purpose teams like those, an obvious name usually makes perfect sense, maybe with some flourish and personalization thrown in.
For example, an M&A team might work well as an outright "Mergers & Acquisitions" team or, more snazzily as a "Extreme Partnerships*" team or something similar that still points to M&A as the team's core focus.
A MacGyver-like digital innovation team I once knew even combined both aspects–the descriptive and the fun–by calling themselves the "Rapid Application Development" team, abbreviated to RAD team. Of course, subject experts would know that RAD is a technical term in its own right. So the name is fractal-like, making sense at multiple levels. But to most of us, it just sounds cool. Cool is worth something!
Other special-purpose teams focus on a very concrete vision or objective that easily lends itself as a name. Some of those names, like "___ of the future" carry their own danger. For one thing, people can argue about how far into the future to think. And for another, this moniker can indicate to others that the teams will never bring any relevant output to the present, instead staying stuck in an ever-moving future. But from a pure naming perspective, such names are at least unique and descriptive. Also, if your vision is backed by an explicit mandate, like Uber's "New Verticals" team, claiming it in your name is perfectly sensible.
It's harder for "general-purpose" teams to find a name that works
What I call "general-purpose" innovation teams don't stick to a single activity or output. You might, for example, combine activities like the Design Thinking, Strategy, and Lean Startup toolkits. Or your outputs might include both entirely new businesses and improvements to your org's existing business.
These teams have the hardest time finding a name that works. Fundamentally, they have a choice between names based on their activities, outputs, or something totally unrelated, like their attitude or culture.
Some name options for general-purpose innovation teams
As mentioned, don't let perfection get in the way of progress. We are trying to improve over "innovation" and "growth." With that caveat in place, a few name options.
I sorted them from most stand-alone (i.e., build entire live businesses from scratch) to most collaborative (i.e., contribute one component to broader efforts):
- 0 to x team: For teams that bring entire businesses to life. Depending on how far you take things, you might be a "0 to 1" team that gets to the first sale, all the way to "0 to scale," where you run businesses all the way to the precipice of scale and where the things you built are aching to be handed over to regular operators because they really want to hum along smoothly in operational mode.
- Labs team: For teams that experiment and build, this is a time-honored name. Its distinguishing factor is that you hand things off once experimentation is complete.
- Research & Experimentation (R&E) team: Still a somewhat squishy term as far as I've seen, though some descriptions are emerging, both for individual teams and broader, organization-wide capabilities. This name may fit the bill for teams that focus less on building than Labs team and more on front-end futures & trends, empathy, and discovery work and who still bring iterative maker habits to bear. The term's similarity to "R&D" may appeal to you if you like the demarkation to scientists on the theoretical end and Product teams on the practical one. Or you might dislike the potential for confusion. Your call.
Feeling brave (or foolhardy)? "Go nuclear" with your team name
The following team name options come with massive risks. If you use them, mere confusion from others will be the least of your concerns. You can also pretty much guarantee overt or subtle attacks from "organizational antibodies" who fight to maintain the status quo for its own sake. These names will make a stir. You are warned.
But they also represent versions of the truth. I'd be remiss not at least to offer them for your consideration:
- System change team: Build down to its essence the point of corporate innovation teams is to change human systems. We break the status quo when it no longer works, in the same sense as terms like "disruption," "creative destruction," or [...]. But, as is the case for all the names in this list, the name comes with major issues. For one thing, using it implies that anything we work on no longer works. Our mere focus on a topic will offend all who worked hard to get that part of the org to where it is today and who claim that everything is just fine, thank you. For another thing, changing the system runs counter to eons of finely-tuned human psychology. Change is a threat at an instinct level long before most humans might consider intellectually whether it actually makes sense. And finally, the term "change" also is already claimed, not by Sales teams as is the case for "growth," but by HR and related teams of "change leadership" professionals. No, those people don't focusing on changing "systems." But many people might ignore that people and just be confused.
- Company evolution/ lifetime extension team: If "system change" is at the core of innovation teams' activities, then "lifetime extension" is our ultimate objective. Of course, we think of it positively, associating the concept with terms like "thriving," "new growth," and the like. We will save jobs, carry on proud traditions, healthy cultures, beloved brands, and many peoples' entire lifetimes of work. But others may flip the metaphorical coin and read such a name as implying death: If the org needs new life, then it must currently be in decline. Again, human psychology will cause an uproar, as people hurl outrage your way. How dare you claim that our org is dying? And beyond that, how dare you proclaim yourselves the saviors who will singlehandedly help our org live on?
- Transformational innovation team: If "lifetime extension" feels too dramatic, then "transformational innovation" is a milder term toward similar ends. It offers you some plausible deniability if people claim that it speaks badly about everyone else's work: If (when) organizational antibodies confront your supposed claim that "the org needs transformation," i.e., is basically dying, you can counter that "no, no, that's not what we meant. We just mean 'transformation' as a technical term, as opposed to 'commercial,' 'continuous,' 'incremental,' or 'adjacent' innovation, which of course are equally important." Sure, you'd be right. But others may not buy it, especially since such an argument is absurdly technical, using a scale that others may not know, understand, or believe in. Instead, they might default to considering you not only arrogant for judging the state of the org but also elitist for putting your arrogance in obscure, academic terms. Definitely not a good combination either.
To blend in, flip your team's focus from outcomes to activities and attach to a more mainstream company function
Focusing on the outcome of "innovation," "growth," or anything else is not a must-do. It's just as honorable to define your team by its activities.
Teams like these might not always work on ground-breaking, new-to-the world topics. But they get other benefits that are just as honorable and match what would be much more common ambitions in many operational teams. For example, you'd get to take pride in regularly "shipping" output, in seeing your work scale, and so on.
There are many such teams. But to give you a few examples, e.g., consider:
- Design research/ User research/ UX research team: Teams like these commonly are part of their org's Design, Product, or Insights function. They are still total pros at front-end human-centered research and insights, even when they are embedded outside formal "innovation" groups.
- Growth marketing/ growth hacking/ go-to-market/ product-led growth team: Who says that in-market testing and iteration has to come from "innovators?" Being part of other groups works just as well and lets you be just as scrappy.
- Product team: If you create new solutions and improvements to existing ones, then that appears like a cool act of creation in itself. It doesn't always have to sweep aside everything that has been and replace it with something totally new.
Can't come up with a good name? Check if the issue is clarity on what you do, not what you call yourselves
Coming up with a team name should not cause an existential crisis. In the end, you are doing just doing your day's work and getting paid for it.
So if it seems that you can hardly describe what you do and neither can the person who's paying you, then consider a more basic question set:
Might you be over-thinking it? Are you actually clear on what your team does and why that role should exist?
It's just as honorable to "pivot" and evolve your team if that means that you and all around you are clear on your mission and motivated to pull it off!
The argument in short
Goldman, W. (1987). The Princess Bride : 20th Century Fox (U.S. distributor). Retrieved 2023-10-23 from https://www.princessbrideforever.com/