Q&A: Who Should be on Your Innovation Team?

We’re trying something new  — a way to get your questions answered by others in the Innovation Leader community, or let you help out someone else. Every few weeks, we’ll send out a newsletter with a member-submitted question and ask you for your advice/experience/input. (If you’re not getting our newsletter, you can sign up here.)

Last week, we asked:

    How do you think about who should be on your innovation team — what kind of roles, and where do you find them?

Below, we’ve summarized a few of the top answers from the community.

• • •

Look for those who speak up — Pharmaceutical industry respondent
“People who are typically thinking outside the box do not remain silent at internal/external meetings. Those are the ones you need on your innovation team. How to find them is bit challenging. You may have come across those in your interactions, or ask you team to suggest the names based on providing same criteria you use to judge the potential recruits. Be ready for some challenges as innovation means disruption, and it is never easy!”

Systems thinkers — Technology industry respondent
“Systems thinkers from a diversity of disciplines.”

Include stakeholders — Healthcare industry respondent
“Innovation teams need to include stakeholders that know the problems that need to be solved.”

Five thoughts — Pharmaceutical industry respondent

  • Diversity: Cross function: esp. Commercial, R&D, Supply Chain & Gender / Culture / Age
  • Right Mindset: optimistic in general; enthusiastic; learners; low ego; able to connect concepts and ideas; comfortable with diversity/failure/startover.
  • Human-centered design orientation
  • Common goals around time, quantity & value
  • Sponsorship and resources as separate from main business / operation

Innovation catalysts — Technology industry respondent
“First of all, I think that the leadership team is where the most focus on innovation roles occurs (VP, Director, etc.). However, I do believe we don’t consider some of the other roles that make innovation happen because they may be embedded deep in the organization, but are just as crucial. It’s all about taking a holistic approach.

One specific role I’d like call out is one that I actually play, Innovation Catalyst. While I don’t run across this role all that often – I do believe it’s a career path in the making – I really see this as a bridge between strategy and tactics. It’s a linchpin if you will (thank you Seth Godin). This person is adaptable, creative, highly networked, and connects the dots across business silos. They have an ability to understand problems from multiple levels and viewpoints. They are able to synthesize conflicting and complex information to see opportunities that can be applied across domains. They are T-Shaped (Tim Brown) and able to cross these different domains easily, but still have a pillar where they have some type of deep expertise.

In a way a chemical reaction needs a catalyst for the reaction to occur, these people do just that to accelerate projects/programs. Whether it be via providing better understanding of the problem space, providing a perspective that is ‘different’ and opens up new types of solutions, or even via creating artifacts that show what could be and how something could be accomplished that maybe a technical team says can’t be done. One way or another they make the connections that accelerate the fuzzy front-end to deliver momentum and velocity on a project. I’m personally trying to find others, internally and externally, that have this role to share like-minded thoughts/skills/tools.”

Startups and internal experts — Insurance industry respondent
“For us, a combination of external hires from the startup space combined with internal domain experts (that have an entrepreneurial spirit that was dampened) has been the right blend.

What do I mean by dampened? In a large, mature company, there is a certain level of ‘get in line or get off the bus’ mentality. I actually think it can be appropriate for running a large, mature business. However, there are some very bright, creative people that are just a bit too gritty for the environment and are looked over for promotions. These people can have a hybrid of corporate and startup spirit and can be ideal.”

Focus on collaboration — Education sector respondent
“There was a LinkedIn post a while back that I found helpful. (“The 7 Magic Roles for Creating Sustainable Innovation Culture.”) In addition, I would say that the key challenge in innovation is to create and maintain healthy relationships with various stakeholders in the innovation ecosystem. Consequently, no matter the roles you are filling for innovation, the fundamental competency must be relationship building and collaboration. Any other competency can only be effectively put to action based of a robust relationship having been established.”

Title suggestions — Media respondent

  • Communication & relationships lead
  • Growth portfolio management lead
  • Analysts
  • Scholar-in-residence
  • Product managers
  • Innovation lead

Think about culture — Manufacturing respondent
“When I think about participants on an innovation team, I immediately think about culture. I shy away from the folks who have a hard time getting past ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ or the ‘someone ELSE…’ I look for people who use the phrase YES AND versus YES BUT. I also look to find a gender balance, people with a lot of company experience, and those who are new. And I work hard to treat all ideas and concepts equally and suspend judgment until we are down selecting.”

Action trumps everything — University respondent
“Encourage the most curious people in the business to join the team. Look out for those with an interest in identifying and framing problems, those who question why we do things the way we do them and those who ask the what-ifs. Make sure the innovation team is multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural with a broad range of interests but crucially a bias for action. Action trumps everything.”

It takes a village — Respondent from a tech consulting firm
“Who should be on the team? Easy…’It takes a village.’ One representative for each department in your company.”

Five key skills — Consulting firm
“An innovation team must have combined 5 key skills I have found in Innovator’s DNA. Although original authors of Innovator’s DNA assert that an innovator has this 5 skills, my team has been quite effective combining these skills together through different roles. In this regard, the roles I recommend are:

  • Challengers: demonstrate the courage, attitude and the ability to ask questions, criticize status quo and challenge assumptions.
  • Creatives: feel comfortable expressing their ideas and does not get frustrated when their ideas are rejected or transformed. Are able to rethink other people’s ideas as well.
  • Designers: have the ability to translate ideas into concepts, projects and prototypes that can be transformed into plans, timelines, budgets, and concrete goals (They can have any profession, the name is just the role).
  • Managers: they can transform the work of designers in concrete projects through their influence and managerial abilities (planning, controlling, directing, and organizing). Managers are those that can lead teams through the exploration of ideas and concepts, in order to achieve goals.”


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