Dr. Nicole Tschierske

An Insider’s Perspective on Accountability in Innovation Teams – with Dr. Stefan Biel

In this interview, Dr. Stefan Biel shares his insight and experience on accountability in consumer good innovation teams. Having done my Ph.D. in Dr. Biel’s lab, I’ve known him for a long time. A natural scientist by education (he studied biotechnology), he’s always worked in innovation. While his career started with looking into the microscope and understanding nature, it later moved on to consumer products and understanding why people do things. Dr. Biel is particularly interested in doing work that makes people’s lives easier. And over the last few years, he’s been focusing specifically on sustainable innovation.

(You can also 🎧 listen to the episode or 📷 view the bite-sized version of this article.)

Doing better work in consumer good innovation 

Dr. Biel shared that he does his best work when faced with an inspiring task – something he’s never done before. He loves having a team that complements him in personality and doesn’t just agree with his ideas but instead goes into discussions, controversy, and arguments with him. If possible, doing work later in the afternoon rather than in the morning helps. But also, sweets and coffee are always great ingredients for doing better work!

Dr. Biel has been leading teams in consumer goods innovation for different product categories for years, and when talking about how he can make work more motivating and engaging for his team, he discussed the importance of accountability and responsibility. He doesn’t believe in micromanagement, and he thrives when having the freedom and resources to carry out a task without someone standing behind his shoulders. He disliked being micromanaged but also micromanaging people, which is something he doesn’t do.

Instead, he asks his team members to focus on their own ideas and rules and to use him as a sounding board – a challenger or a sponsor. If a team only comes up with their leader’s ideas, Dr. Biel said, they’re only ever as good as their boss. And that, in the eyes of Dr. Biel, isn’t a good team approach.

Working in teams means that everyone together can deliver much more than each individual could. So Dr. Biel’s approach as a team lead is to inspire his team members to follow their own way, to learn something new every day, or ask themselves how they could do things better. What fuels motivation, he said, is growing on the job and developing personality and skills.

Managing team members according to their personality and skills

A big part of Dr. Biel’s approach to leadership is to understand what drives and inspires each team member. He believes in giving each person tasks that suit their personality, skills, and preferences, so he can create a comfortable atmosphere that allows team members to find their flow. Because everyone is different. With varying needs, objectives, and areas of expertise, each team member needs to be treated differently. When a team leader caters to people’s strengths and interests, that’s when they feel their best and do their best work.

And when it comes to balancing this approach with the fact that every role has tasks that need doing but no one in the team has the aspiration to do, Dr. Biel talked about how it’s important for team members to understand that everybody has a responsibility to themselves. And that means doing what you have to do in order to get to do what you want to do. This balance, he believes, lies in the hands of the team members. It’s their responsibility to find out what works and then give feedback to the boss. This allows the team to create rules together with their leader and share some of this responsibility.

The importance of having teams come up with their own rules

I asked Dr. Biel to share more about the process of recruiting people into an existing team and finding this balance between taking the responsibility for themselves and coming up with their own rules vs accepting what’s already in place. In answer to this, Dr. Biel shared that in his 20 years of leading teams, he’s learned that if the team leader tries to command something against the team, that will never work.

In fact, he believes that one of the most important traits of a team leader is the ability to stand in front of their team and admit they were wrong – to decide to follow the team’s approach instead. If the team isn’t behind their leader’s approach, a lot of energy is required to push them every day. And that saps positive energy from the team. Instead, it’s about managing expectations in a way that both parties understand what the mutual and common benefit of these activities is.

Finding the right balance with every team

When talking about his approach, Dr. Biel confirmed that it doesn’t work in the same way with every team. Finding that balance between himself and the team isn’t always a quick process. With a new team, it might take closer to a year to get that chemistry. But he found that it’s key for team members to understand that they have real accountability for delivering the project and for products success.

People need to know that their boss is always first in line in protecting the team in case things go wrong. This means they take accountability seriously, while as a boss, Dr. Biel can step back. He doesn’t believe that, even in the most critical situations, a boss can make a difference for the better. If he has an expert on his team handling a deadline, how can he, as a non-expert step in and make things better? The best thing he can do as a leader, Dr. Biel told us, is to encourage his team members to identify the decision points that aren’t under their remit and ask for a recommendation. At that point, they can take Dr. Biel’s decision and build on that. But otherwise, Dr. Biel truly believes in the power of accountable team members.

Accountability and making mistakes

The first step to fostering accountability is for team members to know what they’re accountable for. As a leader, you have to let go first in order to make room for team members to step in and assume accountability. And that must be scary for young leaders or for those who are used to having more control and need to take a leap of faith and allow their team to perhaps make mistakes and learn from them while their leader has to potentially clean up the mess.

Dr. Biel strongly believes that a leader needs to give room for people to make mistakes and have an acceptable way of dealing with them. It’s important to discuss and analyze mistakes as they happen but without blaming team members.

It’s said that most people are mediocre, good, or brilliant at their job at least 75% of the time. And the German way of leading teams is by focusing on the remaining 25% in order to reduce that percentage. But Dr. Biel believes that if you focus on expanding the 75% instead, the approach is more positive and the results are better. It’s all about building on what’s already working, rather than focusing on minimizing what isn’t working yet. And magnifying what’s working is a key approach to positive leadership and positive psychology.

Why micromanaging doesn’t work

Dr. Biel also talked about the fact that in corporate jobs, as soon as things get difficult, people tend to hire high in hierarchy but lower in expertise. New people might then jump in because they don’t trust their teams are doing a good enough job. But that’s micromanaging, and in Dr. Biel’s experience, that never works.

Instead, he enjoys being in a team where he feels like a team captain, rather than a boss. He sees his role as protecting the team, growing it,  bringing in the resources needed, and involving the right stakeholders. He’s not the person who needs to be involved in every task. And because of this, he has the opportunity to do his own work and bring his own topics to the table. The team can be more or less self-organized – that doesn’t mean they’ll never need their leader. It means they’ll only approach him when they need something from him. And this can relieve a lot of Dr. Biel’s time and energy.

Doing good work in product innovation

When asked what helps to do good work in product innovation, Dr. Biel mentioned having no fear when it comes to being embarrassed and openly talking about feelings and impressions around ideas. Plus, Dr. Biel finds that humor in these discussions always helps. Not because people aren’t taking the process seriously, but because they’re being playful with it.

People sitting around the table watching a PowerPoint presentation isn’t the inspiring setup Dr. Biel has in mind when it comes to innovation. He’d rather have a room where those who want to sit can do so, but there’s also space to stand, run, or play with toys (like Lego or magic dough). That helps with the atmosphere. It’s also important to have a group of diverse mindsets, with brains from different ‚planets‘ that start interacting and pushing ideas around.

Dr. Biel also likes to have different departments involved in the innovation process – the scientists, R&D, marketing, supply chain, production, etc. You need to have diversity in the ways of thinking and approaching things. And that isn’t always easy because people might initially struggle to find the common language to even discuss things. But by the end, you’ll get somewhere completely different from where anybody could have predicted.

The importance of having processes

Dr. Biel explained that a process is just a tool. There are different ways of getting from A to B, so it’s hard to prescribe how you’ll get there – it depends on who’s involved, for example. For some people, processes can kill creativity. But when you bring together diverse mindsets, you might find that people need a process and a clear target in order to be creative.

Dr. Biel learned that when working with process-oriented people, in order to show them that you appreciate their input and approach, you need to give them what they need and not put them in an uncomfortable situation that might negatively impact their creativity. And that is why he changed his approach from not having a process at all to having rough agendas.

Plus, without a process, it’s hard to judge whether you’ve done a good job or not. If you attend a 2-hour session without a plan, how do you know if it was good or bad? Processes help you create a structure. But following a process isn’t what represents success – success is always the output. Dr. Biel does not consider ticking boxes as a meaningful objective either, because if you don’t tick all the boxes but reach the objective, then you have a win.

The importance of trust

When talking about being open with ideas and not being embarrassed about making mistakes, Dr. Biel explained that trust in a team is fundamental. A team leader needs to trust in people, and they need to feel that trust. This will help people grow more rapidly towards being open. And for Dr. Biel, it’s easy to give trust upfront. That’s before he even knows if someone deserves it, and most of the time, he’s not disappointed. Giving that trust always pays back.

So it’s easy for him to approach people in a way they’re accommodated so they feel comfortable sharing their voice. Some will do it sooner than others, while some will only do it when asked. But it also goes back to the idea of selecting the right people for activities. Because not everyone can be creative, for example. Yes, all ideas are good. But it’s about finding where people are in their comfort zones and where they’re not. And if someone cannot be innovative or creative, they can be great in supporting innovation or creativity. The way Dr. Biel sees it, everything is a team effort and everyone gets cheers and praise for what they’re doing.

The importance of humor and playfulness

When talking about adding humor to discussions, Dr. Biel shares the importance of talking about things to make them more digestible, especially as they become more critical. And if you help a group smile or laugh after spending hours together chewing on a problem or dilemma they couldn’t solve, it changes the whole atmosphere. And suddenly things feel more open.

In Dr. Biel’s case, his leadership style is close to his personality. And that’s worked in his favor in the teams he’s led so far. The most important thing about humor, Dr. Biel believes, is not hurting anyone. And that can be hard sometimes, especially if you have people who are less outgoing or you accidentally joke about something personal you don’t know about. And when that happens, the best thing is to apologize to the person but also to the setup – to show you’re being honest and true. But the overall power of humor cannot be overestimated.

The importance of relationships

The one thing Dr. Biel would like us to take away from this conversation is the importance of taking care of people and relationships. When it comes to technical capabilities, those can always be learned or taught. But relationships have to be built from zero, and they carry everything else. This is why they’re the most important aspect of leadership and working together.

If you’d like to find out more about Dr. Stefan Biel, you can find him on LinkedIn.

Further Reading

Better Work Basics​