“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” — Phil Jackson
At Microsoft, I learned that building better innovation teams requires a focus on cognitive diversity, inclusive collaboration, effective knowledge management, well-defined roles, and the cultivation of vulnerability-based trust.
I’ve built high performance innovation teams at Microsoft for more than 20 years.
I should probably mention that I’ve led remote teams for more than 20 years, distributed around the world, and full of diversity. In my experience, diversity is how you play the game of innovation better, and win more often 😉
I’ve learned a lot about how to put together a team that can handle big challenges, build breakthrough products, and change the world.
I’ve built dreams teams to forge the future in multiple industries including automotive, banking, education, health, retail, media, telco, the future of cities, the future of sports, etc.
I also learned a lot as “head coach” for Satya’s innovation team where I needed to build small innovation teams to find new business models and learn the future of innovation.
Here is a handful of some of the key things I learned…
5 Keys to Building Better Innovation Teams
I’ve learned 5 key things about building better innovation teams:
- 3 Key Roles for Innovation Teams
- Teams of Capabilities for Innovation Teams
- Diverse Innovation Teams Outperform Homogenous Innovation Teams
- Accelerated Learning Frameworks for Innovation Teams
- Vulnerability-Based Trust for Innovation Teams
# 1. 3 Key Roles for Innovation Teams
When you build a team, especially for innovation work, it’s easy to miss crucial roles if you don’t have the right lens.
One of the most useful lenses I’ve ever come across for evaluating the ability for an innovation team to be effective, is a very simple one thanks to friends at Innduce.me.
It’s a very simple way of looking at innovation teams in terms of 3 key roles:
- Ideator: The Ideator is able to see how trends come together and frame opportunities. They might be the visionary. They are good at idea generation, creative problem solving, and evaluating ideas. When they are really good, we call them “rain maker” because of their ability to wow customers with amazing ideas with real value.
- Champion: The Champion is able to win over stakeholders to get funding and support. They can tell and sell the story of value that the team is creating.
- Implementor: The implementor bridges the gap between the vision and execution. They translate the big idea into a pragmatic solution. They are good at building prototypes. They are good at problem solving and implementing actions.
Individuals may play one or more roles. It’s really a lens to help see where there’s a gap from idea to done.
Teams often face challenges when they lack one or more of these roles, leading to stagnation.
One of the most common patterns I see is a team with a great idea, but they don’t have a champion that can tell or sell the idea to get funding and support. No Champion.
Or, on the flip side, they have a Champion, but they don’t have the ability to execute. No Implementor.
Another common pattern I see is a team strong in execution, but no great ideas to actually do. So they can execute well, but they don’t actually know what’s worth executing or how to create new value. No Ideator.
And one of the saddest patterns is a team that has great ideation and execution ability, but they lack support and funding, and nobody on the team is good at that part of the game. Again, no Champion.
Sometimes a good manager can play the role of champion if they are good at stakeholder management and storytelling.
You can see Innduce.me’s pyramid of innovation profiles for a better view.
#2. Teams of Capabilities for Innovation Teams
Effective teams are those with the necessary skill sets.
It’s not always obvious what skills you really have on a team if you simply organize by traditional roles like architect, developer, and project manager.
Just because you have a bunch of roles on a team doesn’t mean you have somebody who can frame an opportunity, create a business case, gain stakeholder support, or solve the real problem you have.
Ultimately, you need to assemble teams with the right mix of capabilities.
One of the most useful maps I’ve seen here is from friends at Swarm Innovation. Their organized their map of innovation skills into 8 skill clusters, made up of of 26 sub-clusters:
- Drive: Ambition, Initiative, Intensity, Persistence
- Disrupt: Boundary Breaking, Thriving in Uncertainty, Self-Confidence
- Create: Novelty Sinking, Problem Solving, Uncommon Connections, Growth Mindset
- Connect: Relating, Persuading, Team Building, Social Intelligence
- Control: 360-Degree Involvement, Competitiveness, Financial Intelligence
- Think: Information Capacity, Rapid Pattern Recognition, Reflection
- Deliver: Contextual Goal-Orientation, Resourcefulness, Adaptability
- Give: Benefitting Others, Making the World Better
Here is a good walkthrough on how to assess innovation skills according to Swarm Innovation.
And Transform Your Org for the Innovation Age is a great walkthrough of how it’s possible to predict success based on team skill composition.
#3. Diverse Innovation Teams Outperform Homogenous Innovation Teams
The three most important reasons diverse innovation teams outperform homogenous teams are:
- Diverse Perspectives: Diverse teams bring together individuals with varied backgrounds and experiences, leading to a wider range of ideas and innovative solutions.
- Creative Conflict: Diversity fosters constructive conflicts within the team, encouraging critical thinking and challenging assumptions, which ultimately leads to better outcomes.
- Broader Skill Sets: Diverse teams possess a wider range of skills and expertise, enabling them to tackle complex problems from multiple angles and adapt to changing circumstances effectively.
The Primary Problem of Homogenous Teams
The primary problem with homogenous teams is that they tend to have limited perspectives and approaches to problem-solving.
When team members share similar backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, they are more likely to think alike and may overlook alternative solutions or innovative ideas.
This lack of diversity can hinder creativity, lead to groupthink, and limit the team’s ability to adapt to new challenges or opportunities effectively.
Cognitive Diversity is the Key to Deep Diversity
The key here really comes down to cognitive diversity.
Cognitive diversity is the differences in thinking styles, information processing, and problem-solving approaches among individuals within a group or team.
It encompasses variations in perspectives, beliefs, knowledge, and cognitive abilities.
Cognitive diversity is not limited to demographic differences like race or gender but focuses on the unique cognitive strengths and insights that individuals from various backgrounds and experiences bring to a team.
Embracing cognitive diversity can lead to more innovative solutions and better decision-making by considering a broader range of ideas and approaches.
With great diversity can come great conflict.
I’ve learned the importance of establishing clear ground rules and fostering a collaborative environment where people can respectfully challenge each other’s ideas.
As one of my great mentor’s would say: “Open and respectful.”
Passionate individuals can sometimes clash, so it’s crucial to remember that teams naturally progress through stages like forming, storming, norming, and performing.
Recognizing and addressing these phases is essential for achieving meaningful outcomes.
#4. Accelerated Learning Frameworks for Innovation Teams
One of the best ways I’ve found to help teams accelerate and compound their results is by creating learning frameworks.
One of my most famous frameworks around Microsoft is the Book of Dreams, but I’ve actually built many others, while working on topics from sustainability to scalability to security to performance to architecture to even cloud adoption and acceleration.
Innovation is a team sport so it means you need to be able to share knowledge and information better.
By structuring knowledge into types such as checklists, how tos, cheat sheets, learning docs, etc. is a simple way to increase sharing.
And by knowing what types of knowledge to focus on such as trends & insights, stories, scenarios, and solutions, you create a very simple way to learn better, faster, and easier, as a team.
People burn out when they have to keep solving the same problems over and over.
Without a simple and effective way to organize knowledge, people become ineffective as “the wheels on the bus go round and round.”
#5. Vulnerability-Based Trust for Innovation Teams
Building trust is another key for high-performance teams.
When people think of trust, they often think in terms of expected behavior: “I trust you’ll do that.”
Vulnerability-based trust is “I’ve got your back.”
When you feel somebody has your back, you can go out on a limb. Otherwise, you’re too busy worried someone is sawing it off.
Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust” comes to mind.
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