3 best innovation team formulas (and when to ignore them)

This article first appeared on Qmarkets blog in 2017 and is reproduced here with some modifications.

You’ve heard this cliché many times before: innovation is all about people. Even if you’re an avid fan of AI, you hardly expect robots replacing humans as innovators any time soon. And if you agree with another popular cliché, the one saying that innovation is a team sport, you will come to a natural conclusion: to pursue a corporate innovation project, you need a dedicated innovation team.

Do you need an innovation team?

Or maybe you don’t. Many folks don’t believe in structured innovation arguing that any ‘structure’ kills creativity and stifles innovation. Even some innovation experts claim that ‘innovation is everyone’s job.’

The notion that “innovation is everyone’s job” is quite popular in many companies. Why? Because it allows their leadership teams to adopt a hands-off approach to innovation process. It obviously takes time and effort to formulate the company’s innovation strategy, align it with the corporate strategic goals, and identify key business problems to solve. In contrast, it’s much easier to announce an open season for ‘ideas,’ launch an innovation hackathon or two and then claim that the collective wisdom of the whole company has been harnessed. (The popularity of this hands-off approach to innovation can be at least partially attributed to the proliferation of easy-to-use innovation management platforms.)

And yet, most corporate innovation leaders do understand the need and value of creating a dedicated innovation team. To be sure, every employee in an organization should ideally take part in innovation projects, but it’s the ultimate responsibility of the innovation team to take ownership of the process: to make it efficient, measurable, and accountable. Anyone with a glimpse of corporate experience knows that when ‘everyone’ is responsible for something, no one is.

Innovative people for innovative teams

And here we come to an important question: how this innovation team should be formed? Several approaches exist.

The first approach emphasizes personal skills of the team members. That’s why you can often hear that the best way to staff your innovation team is to hire…innovative people. Great advice, of course, but unfortunately, with limited practical value. This is not to say, however, that more specific directions are completely lacking. For example, a 2017 publication lists five ‘innovative’ qualities each member of the innovation team is supposed to possess:

  • Leapfrogging mindset: a desire to view the world with the goal of changing it.
  • Complementary knowledge: the expertise that will help your organization create new technology or a new business model.
  • Strategic relationships: the existence of a strong network of business partners.
  • Ambiguity tolerance: the capacity to make decisions based on limited data.
  • Optimistic persistence: the risk-taking mindset needed to persist through the tough times.

Although I wholeheartedly agree with all five suggestions, I nevertheless suspect that most of corporate HR departments, even equipped with advanced evaluation tests, will have troubles with finding enough candidates meeting such a high standard.

Who is your partner?

The second approach pays little attention to the individual skill sets of the team members, but stresses instead the need for an optimal mix of individuals the team is composed of. This approach specifically focuses on the functional roles each member of the team plays in the project. For example, it was suggested that each innovation team should include nine innovation roles of which the most important are the following five:

  • Revolutionary: team member generating and sharing ideas.
  • Connector: team member bringing people together.
  • Customer Champion: team member responsible for interactions with customers.
  • Magic Maker: team member responsible for implementing developed ideas and solutions.
  • Evangelist: team member creating a ‘buzz’ about the project and its results within the organization.

This approach is obviously much more practical than the first. In fact, many organizations have already adopted the ‘spirit’ (if not the exact ‘letter’) of this approach by creating innovation ‘joint task forces’ composed of representatives from different corporate units and functions (or locations, if appropriate): R&D, sales and marketing, customer service, finance, legal, HR, etc.

Implicit in the formation of an innovation team composed of members belonging to different parts of an organization is a belief that this team can only be successful if it includes people with diverse professional expertise and experience. In recent years, this concept of diversity was augmented by a growing body of evidence showing that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation) are more innovative than socially homogeneous groups.

Research shows that socially diverse groups are better at solving complex problems not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information, but also because the mere presence of individuals with alternative viewpoints forces group members to work harder to get their own points across.

This is good news for HR managers in charge of innovation teams: in our rapidly globalizing workforce environment, finding people with diverse professional, personal, and social attributes is much easier than chasing rare individuals with nebulous qualities such as ‘leapfrogging mindset.’

It’s all about process

There is the third approach to the formation of innovation teams. This approach emphasizes not the team composition or individual skills of its members, but the way the team operates. The logic behind this approach was eloquently articulated in a 2015 article about Google. The article argues that the composition of a team matters much less for its success than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contribution. The article listed five key factors that set apart successful Google teams:

  • Psychological safety: team members taking risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed.
  • Dependability: team members counting on each other to do high-quality work.
  • Structure & clarity: the availability of clear goals, roles, and execution plans for each team member.
  • Meaning of work: team members working on something that is personally important for them.
  • Impact of work: team members believing that their work matters.

Characteristically, it is the first factor, psychological safety, which was by far the most important of the five. The safer team members felt with one another, the more likely they were to admit mistakes, work together, and take on new roles. All this obviously positively affected pretty much every aspect of their work.

The power of this specific example in large part derives from the fact that it comes from Google, arguably one of the world’s most innovative companies, because the very notion that innovation requires taking risks without fear of negative career repercussions is hardly new. We all used to hearing calls to ‘fail fast and fail often’ (or even to ‘celebrate failure’) as a surrogate invitation to innovate.

Unfortunately, while voiceful in promoting risk-taking, relentless experimentation, and learning from mistakes (all being parts of the elusive ‘culture of innovation’), companies fail to introduce specific corporate policies that would encourage and reward such a behavior of their employees.

What can be done?

Previously, I proposed two such specific and actionable corporate policies.

  • First, I proposed placing employees involved in strategic innovation projects on fixed-term (tenure-like) employment contracts, as opposed to employment-at-will. This proposal is based on a 2001 study showing that labor laws making it more difficult to fire employees increase their participation in corporate innovation activities.
  • Second, I proposed making stock option grants, as opposed to cash bonuses and other monetary rewards, the principal incentive for engaging employees in innovation projects. This proposal is based on a 2015 finding that companies offering stock options to non-executive employees were more innovative and that the positive effect of stock options on innovation was more pronounced for longer-term grants.

In other words, even before starting to form individual innovation teams, provide all employees with incentives to engage in innovation activities along with immunity for failed innovation projects. Who knows, you may immediately discover that the number of innovative people in your organization is larger than you expected.

Image credit: Leon on Unsplash

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
This entry was posted in Creativity, Innovation, Rewards and Recognition and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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