During the recent judging round of the sixth annual Horizons Challenge, WTW’s yearly colleague-focused innovation program, it was clear that one key to unlocking innovation is building teams made up of both creative and rational business thinkers.
As WTW’s Oliver Narraway explains, effective leaders build innovation dream teams comprising strategists, futurists, generalists and subject matter experts to ensure different and unique ways of thinking.
Since its inception, our Horizons program has uncovered solutions to address client needs, open new markets, reach new customers and introduce new business models. Not surprisingly, the ideas this year spanned the gamut of current topics, including connected risks, the impact of technologies such as generative AI, sustainability and organizational resilience.
While innovation often is associated with creativity and the “spark of an idea that changes the world,” the reality is that innovation also involves hard work, tenacity, constant iteration and learning. Effective innovation also requires rationality and business fundamentals that allow good ideas to come to life.
Effective leaders build teams of creative and rational thinkers and encourage them to wear both hats through the innovation process using what WTW’s Constanza Lobo-Guerrero calls “rational creativity.” The concept is critical in creating an innovation dream team and plays a key role throughout the innovation lifecycle.
Phase 1: Exploration – analyzing the facts. The early stages of the innovation value chain involve assessing the future macroeconomic environment, conducting market research and exploring customer trends. This phase requires creative thinkers to make connections and envision new concepts that address a problem or need that is unsolved or unmet (and may not even exist yet). Rational thinking then allows colleagues to analyze the facts and turn them into key insights that narrow the areas of focus. In these stages, effective leaders balance rationality and creativity. They know that all innovations do not need to represent breakthroughs – they also can represent incremental ways of adding value by doing things differently.
Phase 2: Ideation – finding solutions. Rational creativity plays an important role in the ideation phase of the innovation process, where colleagues imagine potential solutions to identified problems. While this step requires creative minds to come up with new ideas, it also needs rational thinking to ground those ideas and develop a way to make them feasible. If a customer won’t buy it or use it, it’s not a good use of time or resources – regardless of how creative the idea. Rational thinkers often dread group brainstorming and dynamic ideation sessions – they can feel uncomfortable without a structured process. Creative thinkers, in turn, often feel bogged down by analysis. Effective innovation leaders find ways to harness the power of both in a productive manner.
Phase 3: Testing – challenging assumptions. Effective leaders know that the key to design thinking involves testing assumptions and market viability of new solutions prior to development. Testing assumptions requires both rational and creative thinking. In this process, creative thinking helps break patterns and identifies assumptions that previously have been taken for granted.
Rational thinkers behave like scientists and find evidence that will either confirm or disprove identified assumptions. This evidence will be key to deciding whether the evidence suggests a) teams are going down the right path and should advance to development; b) there is potential in the solution but the team should pivot to make changes or find a new direction that will enable it to be successful; or c) the team is focusing on the wrong problem, or the solution is not viable at the current time and should stop.
Phase 4: Development and launch – building and activating. Effective leaders also know that the development and launch phases of the innovation process require both rational and creative thinking. During development, rational thinking provides rigor to confirm the solution meets the needs of users and helps make its costs and benefits tangible. Creative thinking helps in the design of the product experience. During the launch phase, rational thinking will assess marketing, sales and distribution processes for growth and continuous improvement, while creative thinking will help consider new promotion materials and messaging, product/solution enhancements, marketing channels and loyalty strategies.
Effective leaders build rational creative teams by seeking colleagues with varied but complementary backgrounds and ways of thinking. They know some team members are more rational thinkers, others are more creative thinkers, and some can incorporate both. In all cases, team members need to respect each other’s ways of thinking and what they bring to the table. Effective leaders create ways of working that make the team feel comfortable with each other in a changing and flexible environment. The most effective teams include members who nurture both sides of their brains enabling them to apply rational creativity and unlock the power of innovation.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes on May 31, 2023.