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3 of the Best Innovation Team Formulas…and When to Ignore Them

Cropped shot of a group of business colleagues meeting in the boardroom

You’ve heard this cliché many times before: innovation is all about people. Even if you’re an avid fan of artificial intelligence, 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 that in order to pursue a corporate innovation project, you need to create a dedicated innovation team.

Do you need an innovation team?

innovation_team_teamwork_newOr 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.” Actually this notion that “innovation is everyone’s job” is quite popular in many companies. Why? Because it allows its leadership 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 corporate strategic goals and identify key problems to solve. In contrast, it’s so easy to just 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 popularization of this hands-off approach to innovation can be at least partially attributed to easy-to-use innovation management platforms, such as Qmarkets’ Q-open and Q-max which support on-the-ground innovation initiatives.

And yet, the majority of corporate innovation leaders do understand the need and value of creating a dedicated innovation team. To be sure, every employee in your 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

innovation_team_innovative_peopleAnd here we come to a crucial question: how this innovation team should be formed? Several approaches to addressing this question exist. 

The first approach emphasizes the personal skills of the team members. That’s why you will often hear that the best way to staff your innovation team is to hire…innovative people; great advice, but unfortunately with limited practical value. This is not to say, however, that more specific directions are completely unavailable. For example, a recent 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 agree in principle with all five suggestions, I nevertheless suspect that the majority of corporate HR departments, even equipped with advanced Myers-Briggs-style tests, will have troubles with finding enough candidates meeting such a high standard.

Who is your partner?

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

  • 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” around the organization about the project and its results

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 having created innovation “joint task forces” composed of representatives from different corporate units and functions (or locations, if appropriate): R&D, sales and marketing, customer service, accounting, 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 scientific evidence (summarized in a 2014 article in Scientific American) 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 the “leapfrogging mindset”.

It’s all about process

innovation_team_process_newThere is the third approach to the formation of innovation teams. This approach emphasizes not the team composition or individual skills of its member, but the way the team operates. The logic behind this approach was eloquently articulated in a 2015 article on 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 contributions. 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, to work together and take on new roles. All this obviously positively affected pretty much every aspect of their work.

The power of this particular example obviously derives from the fact that it comes from Google, arguably one of the world’s most innovative companies, for 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 cheering 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.

Previously, I proposed two such corporate policies. First, I proposed to make stock option grants, as opposed to cash bonuses and other monetary rewards, the principal incentive for engaging employees in innovation projects. This proposal is taking cue from 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 with longer-term grants. Second, I proposed to place employees involved in innovation projects on fixed-term 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.

In other words, try first to provide all of your employees with incentives to engage in innovation activities along with immunity for failed innovation projects. After you implemented these or similar policies, you may well discover that the number of qualified people in your organization is larger than you expected.

Speak to a member of the Qmarkets team today and discover how we can help you create and maintain a culture of innovation which will deliver measurable value for your organization.

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Eugene Ivanov – the author is an innovation management consultant who helps organizations design and then implement internal & external innovation programs. He is an expert at selecting and redefining R&D problems which can be solved successfully by using crowdsourcing. Eugene writes at the Innovation Observer website and his tweets can be found at @eugeneivanov101.

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