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How to build an innovation ‘dream team’

By Oliver Narraway | November 4, 2022

You’ll need strategists, futurists, generalists and subject matter experts to ensure different ways of thinking.
Future of Work|Talent
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One of the biggest questions you face on any innovation initiative is who do we need to help to understand and solve this?

The question applies at each stage of the innovation life cycle, from the first brainstorm session, where you look at potential problems to solve, right through to the launch of the solution.

Some of the answers to this question are simple:

  • You need subject matter experts who can help to unpack the details of a problem or truly understand how things work today.
  • You will often need technology experts who can think through how you would build a solution.
  • Sales colleagues are needed to raise challenges and needs on behalf of their clients. You can’t beat a good anecdote about “this time my client needed to do something but…”

So what are we missing? Let’s turn this around and think about ways of thinking. It is well known that diversity of thought creates an environment where different perspectives and “outside the box” ideas are heard. To enable nonlinear, novel thinking and create the innovation dream team, you need to create a diverse team of individuals who will bring the different ways of thinking that you will need on every project.

Here are three types of professionals you’ll need:

Generalists

By definition there’s no specific place you’ll find generalists, although they may be more prevalent in central teams or cross-solution roles. You’ll need one because planning the innovation journey requires strategic thinking.

  • Generalist will have extensive exposure to cross-functional business programs and a deep understanding of the industry, competitors and wider market dynamics. They’ll have a broad view (and preferably experience of) the wider enterprise.
  • They’ll be lateral thinkers, capable of taking the learnings from one solution in one business or industry and applying those learnings to a different problem or solution.
  • They’ll have a deep interest in and understanding of user behaviors, needs and motivations or drivers. Further, they’ll apply this with empathy to walk through how users might react and respond to problems and solutions.
  • They'll be aware that they are not the expert and will embrace that.
  • They'll not be encumbered with an existing view of how it is done today.
  • They'll often be the ones to introduce a new culture of innovation, inspire the team and lead innovation by example.

Those who’ve ‘been there, done that’

There’s typically no replacement for actual hands-on experience of a problem. You can often find “been there, done that” perspectives by identifying colleagues who have previously operated in certain roles for clients in your industry. This does not replace the need to talk to prospective buyers and users of your solution, but you do get:

  • Ethnographic empathy – meaning it’s based on lived experience. Stories of real experience can help the team to understand problems and ideate.
  • Deep understanding of the problem you want to solve
  • Strong views on which solutions would or wouldn’t work – and why
  • Sometimes you can identify great equivalent experiences. For instance, if someone has struggled with implementing analytics in one part of a business, much of that experience may be transferrable to other analytics-based opportunities.

Futurists and technologists

These are not experts in existing technology, but capability-focused horizon scanners. You might find them in technology teams, but you’ll also find them scattered throughout organizations. This profile is outward and forward-looking with a grasp of emerging trends, nascent technologies and an appetite to apply them. Their profile is defined by:

  • Being particularly adept at ideation, where preconceptions about the art of the possible can be stretched and challenged
  • Being unintimidated by potential barriers or reasons why something may not work
  • Identifying external examples of where new technologies and approaches have been deployed
  • Often being helpful in connecting with people from external organizations who can share particular knowledge

Combining these perspectives will drive healthy, productive tension

If you get the right mix of profiles in your project, the challenge becomes how you channel these different perspectives into a habit of positive challenges. What you typically want to see is:

  • Generalists helping subject matter experts to step outside of how things are done today
  • Futurists and technologists bringing examples from other industries to challenge the group to think more adventurously about broader possibilities
  • “Been there, done that” colleagues advocating for what they would have wanted when they were in a similar position

Strong leadership and a growth mindset

This brings us to the final element of our team that is again often overlooked. You’ll need a strong project leader to ensure the various perspectives pull together and coalesce around a common direction and goal.

Innovation leadership certainly warrants its own article. For now, here is a short list of attributes innovation leaders should demonstrate:

  • Objectivity to weigh and balance perspectives and confidently pick a path forward
  • A fish-eye overview, simultaneously navigating the immediate next step and staying focused on the long term
  • A learning-focused, no-blame ethos where all participants’ views are valued even when challenged
  • Optimism and positivity to ride out the inevitable challenges of developing and testing new concepts
  • Clarity of communication within the team and with senior stakeholders
  • Alignment with the business strategy and storytelling skills to “sell” a concept internally

Having the right multi-disciplinary expertise and ways of thinking involved in any innovation project does not guarantee success. However, there is one critical factor that all team members must strive to cultivate – and leaders must ensure they support – to give your project your best shot: a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is defined as a set of attitudes and behaviors that embrace change, strive for constant improvement and reflect the belief that individuals are able to develop, learn and grow. You accept that you may not be able to solve a certain challenge yet, but you have the ability to push the boundaries and explore new paths that will eventually enable you to solve it. Innovation projects are all about navigating the unknown and trying new things for the first time, so feeling comfortable with ambiguity and seeing it as an opportunity is key.

The good news is that a growth mindset can be trained! We can all cultivate a growth mindset by nurturing self-awareness, consciously making the decision to push ourselves and not losing sight of the goal.

Uncertainty is an innate part of innovation, and we should not fear failure itself. However, there is a distinction between a concept failing and a process failing. Getting the right ways of thinking within or available to your innovation dream team is key to ensuring your innovation fails for the right reasons.

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Innovation Coach
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