Dear Boss: Here’s How to Manage our Team

By Scott Kirsner |  May 12, 2014

What would you tell a new executive who had just stepped in to oversee your innovation team? Phil Swisher, Head of Innovation at Brown Brothers Harriman, the oldest and largest private bank in the U.S., put together a one-pager for the partner who was taking over that role in 2013. But the advice Swisher passed along wasn’t his own — it was a selection of quotes from “Innovator’s Dilemma” author Clay Christensen, Intuit CEO Brad Smith, and Eric Ries, one of the originators of the “lean startup” movement.

BBH has about 5,000 employees, 17 offices around the world, and more than $3 trillion in assets under custody and management. (Last November, we wrote about the scoring system for new ideas that Swisher uses at the firm.)

The document is below in its entirety, or you can download the PDF.

Guide to Overseeing the Innovation Team

Innovation Discipline Mission Statement: We rapidly take big swings at things that matter to BBH.

Two long-term goals:

  1. Generate meaningful revenue from new businesses
  2. Build a stronger culture of innovation.

High Level Role of Senior Leadership, as written by Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Solution:

“The senior executives [defined as Chairman, Vice Chairman, CEO and President] of a company that seeks repeatedly to create new waves of disruptive growth have three jobs. The first is a near-term assignment: personally to stand astride the interface between disruptive growth businesses and the mainstream businesses to determine through judgment which of the corporation’s resources and processes should be imposed on the new business, and which should not. The second is a longer-term responsibility: to shepherd the creation of a process that we call a ‘disruptive growth engine,’ which capably and repeatedly launches successful growth businesses. The third responsibility is perpetual: to sense when the circumstances are changing, and to keep teaching others to recognize these signals….Until processes that can competently manage disruptive innovation have coalesced, the personal oversight of a senior executive is one of the most crucial resources that disruptive businesses need to reach success.”

Day to Day Role of Senior Leadership, as written by Intuit CEO Brad Smith:

“The best leaders don’t need to have all of the answers. They ask the right questions. There are three questions I always ask when meeting with teams:

  1. What surprised you to the upside, and what did you learn that drove the upside versus expectations?
  2. What surprised you to a downside, and what did you learn that caused the downside surprise?
  3. What barriers are getting in the way of what you are trying to achieve?

The first two have to do with savoring the surprises that can often lead to breakthroughs. The third helps me understand where I can help the team be more successful.” (From a blog post by Smith entitled “Lead with Questions, Not Answers.”)

Our Innovation Process, as written by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup:

“The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.”

(From a page about the Lean Startup Methodology.)