How to Build Your Innovation Dream Team (Part 1) |



Do you agree that to pursue a corporate innovation project, you need a dedicated innovation team?

Maybe not. We often hear that “innovation is everyone’s job” along with arguments that any structure kills creativity and stifles innovation.

Why is the idea that “innovation is everyone’s job” still alive and well in many companies? (I happened to work for one.)

Because this allows corporate leadership to adopt a hands-off approach to innovation.

No need to formulate the company’s innovation strategy and identify key business problems to solve. No need to design and implement specific innovation programs. No need to create a reward and recognition system that would incentivize employees’ engagement in innovation activities.

Instead, you 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. (Ironically, helping this hands-off approach to innovation thrive is the proliferation of innovation management software.)

Fortunately, more and more corporate leaders begin to understand the need and the value of creating a dedicated innovation team. Of course, every employee should ideally take part in innovation projects, but it’s the ultimate responsibility of the innovation team to take ownership of the whole process. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of how corporations work knows that when everyone is responsible for something, no one is.

Let’s leapfrog?

And here we reach a crucial question: how should this innovation team be formed?

Several approaches exist.

The first emphasizes the personal skills of the team members. That’s why you can hear that the best way to staff your innovation team is to hire…innovative people. Great advice, of course, but unfortunately, with a limited practical value.

This is not to say, however, that more specific recommendations are completely lacking. Soren Kaplan, for example, suggests looking for these five qualities when recruiting new hires:

  • Leapfrogging mindset: a desire to view the world with the goal of changing it.
  • Complementary knowledge: possessing the knowledge and expertise that is complementary to yours.
  • Strategic relationships: bringing along a strong network of business partners.
  • Ambiguity tolerance: the ability to make decisions based on limited data.
  • Optimistic persistence: the ability to persist through the tough times.

I like these suggestions. But I suspect that most corporate HR departments, even equipped with advanced evaluation tests, will have trouble with finding enough candidates meeting such a high standard.

When a revolutionary meets a magic maker

Instead of paying attention to the skill sets of individual team members, the second approach emphasizes the need for their optimal mix. This approach specifically focuses on the functional roles each member of the team plays in the project. For example, Braden Kelley suggested that each innovation team should include nine innovation roles including these five:

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

(The other four roles are Conscript, Artist, Troubleshooter and Judge.)

This approach is obviously more practical than the first. In fact, some firms have already adopted the spirit, if not the exact letter, of it by creating innovation joint task forces composed of representatives from different corporate units and functions: R&D, sales and marketing, customer service, finance, legal, etc.

Implicit in the formation of an innovation team composed of people from different corporate walks of life 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 functional diversity was augmented by a growing body of evidence suggesting that socially diverse groups (i.e., those with a diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, 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 sharpen their own arguments.

This is good news for HR managers in charge of creating innovation teams: in our rapidly globalizing workforce environment, bringing together people with diverse professional and social attributes is much easier than identifying individuals with a leapfrogging mindset or optimistic persistence.

It’s all about the process

There is the third approach to the formation of innovation teams. This approach doesn’t pay attention to the team composition or individual skills of its members; it emphasizes the way the team operates.

I’ll describe this approach in Part 2.

Image credit: Vlad Hilitanu on Unsplash