The Right Stuff – A Look Inside Innovative Teams

The-Right-Stuff-high-resolutionWhat does it mean to truly “innovative?” The term has become a cliché with so many ordinary products being advertised as innovative. Even the construction mess at the Atlanta Hartsfield airport has a billboard that advertises “innovation at work.” Really!?

Innovation is one of those words that most companies talk about, but its true meaning is often elusive. Ask executives across the organization what it is and why it’s important, and you’ll get a different answer each time. If you strip away the marketing B.S., an innovation aimed at optimizing revenue growth is about solving a problem with great ideas that are creative and unique in nature, resulting in tangible outcomes that customers find valuable and worth buying – more so than what the competition offers.

To innovate one must have an intimate understanding of customer needs, desires, and frustrations. The primary focus should be on the customer rather than being about profit potential, product engineering, or emotional ideas tied to a particular leader. The best, most innovative ideas come in response to an important problem to solve that matter to customers. Innovation only occurs after the idea is implemented and benefits are realized.

A recent example of a truly innovative product is Amazon Echo, which uses a combination of natural language processing and artificial intelligence (AI) to engage customers in a two-way dialogue. Though it took several years of experimenting and learning to develop, a mix of innovative individuals came together to ask the right questions, visualize what was possible, discover novel possibilities, and test many combinations of potential solutions for Echo to become a blockbuster product. There are currently over 10,000 “skills” available that enable users to talk to and listen to Alexa, the AI voice of Echo. Did Amazon get lucky with the right mix of innovative talent? Or did it go with “The Right Stuff” when forming teams among qualified individuals who possessed desired characteristics?

Imagine how Thomas Edison’s team of innovators at Menlo Park, NJ in the late 19th century came together to invent and apply for over 400 U.S. patents, starting with the phonograph in 1877. Of more recent times, how Jony Ivey and his team of innovators at Apple disrupted the mobile phone industry and dethroned Nokia with its iPhone launch in 2007. Make no mistake, innovation is a “team sport.” It requires a mix of innovative talents among those involved. Whereas some are good at visioning, others excel at experimenting and designing solutions. Undoubtedly a combination of many innovative talents came together among teams at Amazon, Apple, and GE to achieve competitive marketplace advantage.

Problem Statement
Simply put, most organizations fail miserably at innovation. They waste money, time, and staff in going after ideas that masquerade as “innovative,” but, in reality, fall far short of the definition given above. For the vast majority, especially among established companies, leaders too often are clueless when it comes to grasping all that is required to enable the proper mindset, approach, and discipline to innovate in a timely manner. In fact, 84% of global executives believe innovation is “extremely important,” but only 6% are satisfied with their innovation performance, according to the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Fahrenheit 212’s co-founder Mark Payne cites that innovation failure rates range anywhere between 60 to 90% depending on the industry and product type.

One explanation to why so many organizations fail at innovation is the people aspect, i.e., those who are directly involved in innovation leadership and project teams. Analogous to fielding a baseball team, where a variety of skills need to harmonize across nine positions, it takes a group effort to win. In business, questions arise as to whether the right individuals with the proper mindset and innovation skills are on the team. Successful baseball teams know how to draft and develop talent better than their rivals. So too must company leaders have the right mix of talent if they expect to succeed at innovation.

Innovative companies like Amazon, Apple, and GE tend to be all over this need. Even more so, many of the smaller start-up companies that rely on innovation to outcompete their larger rivals are very selective in who gets assigned to projects. They simply cannot afford to waste time or resources while innovating. Besides having highly-capable contributors, knowing how to field a complete team is even more critical to success.

“The Right Stuff”
This paper examines what it takes to be truly innovative, what’s required to field a winning team. It introduces new factors aimed at boosting innovative horsepower at the individual and team level. As previously noted, the human element is critically important to make innovation work; that is, to connect, empathize, ideate, collaborate, challenge, build, and come together to produce successful outcomes.

Three different approaches follow that attempt to measure innovative talents, tendencies, and behaviors among individuals. This includes Myer-Briggs®, StrengthFinders™, and Innovation Styles®.

Innovation-Abyss-book-1Dr. Chris DeArmitt in his recent book Innovation Abyss argues that our DNA plays a central role in what makes us innovate; how some individuals are especially gifted with innate qualities beyond others; how they inherit this ability to think differently, ask the right questions, and know what to do when it comes to being innovative. The “gifted” ones tend to possess three key qualities that make them innovative; i.e., the ability to think creatively, develop technical expertise, and learn business acumen better than most other people.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) personality test is based on analytical psychology from Swiss psychiatrist Carl Yung (1875-1961). It is a tool that provides insight into how we think, solve problems, and prefer to spend our time. Based on Dr. DeArmitt’s research and credibility as an accomplished innovator, he draws a strong correlation between the “NT” personality type (“Intuition-plus Thinkers”) and the ability to generate innovative outcomes. He explains how individuals positioned at the upper third of the Rainmaker Index (“NT” profile derived from MBTI) accounted for 95 times more profit than those in the lower third, based on findings from a 10-year longitudinal study across 267 projects at Dow Chemical.

In other words, those rated as NT were found to be far more innovative in their accomplishments than others with a different MBTI profile. Not only at Dow Chemical, but the NT personality type was also prevalent among innovators at other manufacturing companies (e.g., BASF, Electrolux, and Stevens & Swogger) where Dr. DeArmitt had direct experience.

Strengthfinder-Book-362x500StrengthFinders™ is a survey tool that measures the presence of 34 talent themes (strengths) in how individuals respond to situational questions. To build and validate this tool, Gallup surveyed over 1.7 professionals on approximately 177 questions. The talents measured reflect on one’s naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior within the context of career settings. The more dominant the theme, the greater its impact on that person’s behavior and job performance, according to Gallup.

It is relatively straightforward to apply these talent themes to the front-, middle, and back-end phases of innovation. For instance, take Empathy, Ideation, and Deliberative. Each of these themes aligns to specific phases in the innovation process. Someone with a strength in Empathy, for example, is thought to be especially in tune with the emotions of others. This type of individual aligns to the front-end phase of innovation, perhaps as part of a Design Thinking focus, where sensing skills are needed to perceive customer needs, frustrations, and desires.

Similar arguments can be made for those with Ideation and Deliberative strengths with respect to the middle and back-end phases, respectively. It would be counterproductive to assign someone with dominant Deliberative strengths – where the talent is working with clear requirements and detailed work plans – to the front-end of innovation where ambiguity is the norm.

Let those with a Deliberative mindset build products, let the Ideation type collaborate on the best ideas to pursue, and let those with Empathetic strengths focus on perceiving customer needs and problem definition. This is one way of using talent themes to align the right individuals with appropriate strengths to specific roles to maximize potential.

Whereas there should be a direct correlation between one’s dominant strength(s) and the role they are assigned, some talents apply to more than one role. For instance, someone highly skilled at connecting with others (Empathy) on the front-end of innovation can also interpret customer feedback from prototype demonstrations on the back-end phase. The same goes for the middle and back-end phases where other dominant talents apply across multiple roles.

Innovation Styles®
Innovation Styles® take an introspective view into various ways we think innovatively. “We are all unique individuals. Each one of us has different habits, talents, knowledge, values, interests, and ways of expressing ourselves … we approach innovation and change in different ways,” according to William C. Miller, co-founder of Values Centered Innovation® and former head of the Innovation Management Program at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI International).

The premise is that every person has the potential for being innovative, but with varying styles and preferences. Each of the four dimensions that make up Innovation Styles® is like a language of innovative thinking; we may have a preferred “mother tongue” yet we can be skillful in using all four at various times. Whereas some of us prefer “Visioning” where we look for a bold, ideal future state and and imagine “what if” possibilities, others prefer “Experimenting” we look for novel yet practical combinations that can be tested and refined.

As applied to teams, it takes a blend of styles across all phases of innovation to come together as an integrated unit, to be able to think and work together as one team when tackling challenges. ClearlyAmazon’s Echo team had a blended mix of Innovation StylesÒ among its many participants that combined visionary thinking with exploration, experimentation, and development. This concept of blended Innovation StylesÒ is depicted as a compass, with each style approaching a challenge from a different direction to stimulate innovative thinking:
innovative teams
What is shown above are very different ways we go about thinking and acting based on our Innovation StyleÒ preference. All four styles depicted are required to round out the team in talent, knowledge, and abilities to innovate, according to William Miller. Teams should have the right blend of styles so that collective strengths are fully leveraged when examining the right questions, options, and actions.

One advantage of the Innovation Styles® is that you don’t have to know each person’s style profile before assembling the team. You can find out their preferred “languages” of innovation afterward and then give them training to develop their skills versatility to utilize all four languages/styles in their teamwork. While Steve Jobs was a genius at visualizing the future, it took other styles across a talented team to transform the iPhone from fantasy to reality.

A project team balanced among all four Innovation StylesÒ is well positioned to have thought through many of the important questions associated with selecting the right problem area, best idea(s), and preferred method to validate results. The goal is to bring out the best in each member’s ability to challenge thinking, offer suggestions, agree on approach, and execute tasks. Doing so can enable a wide range of talents and inquisitive minds. It can contribute to forging strong relationships, mutual respect, and a deeper appreciation of how the various styles come together across the entire team.

Three different approaches are summarized above that attempt to measure innovative talent, tendencies, and behaviors among individuals. They bring up a nature versus nurture debate as to what makes us truly innovative. One may wonder, is our ability to innovate based primarily on innate qualities, such as IQ, the ability to think differently, or being uniquely creative? Or can virtually anyone innovate in varying degrees, where the right environment can nurture and refine capabilities?

Take the famous entrepreneur Elon Musk, for instance. Is he a one-of-a-kind innovator due to his ancestral gene pool or did he evolve in ways that made him what he is today? The correct answer is likely a combination of both factors, i.e., the innate capacity to be extraordinary as well as being able to strengthen abilities over time.
In either case, the motive for writing this paper was to give attention to how the human element — people with specific talents, styles, and preferences — can be employed more effectively to achieve greater success in innovation. Strengthening the human element at the individual and team level should make a profound difference, for it takes the “right stuff” among many to solve customer problems with great, creative, and novel ideas, and to delight customers whereby your products are preferred over the competition.

The reader is offered the following takeaway points to consider. Apply them to how your company goes about recruiting, selecting, and engaging the appropriate individuals to innovate. Equally important is how teams get formed with the right balance of complementary strengths. You are left to decide which of these points to potentially bring into your workplace. Consider:

  • How certain individuals with the right traits should be given preference over others when pursuing innovation.
    1. Leadership should give preference to those with an MBTI rating of “NT” among other key variables when recruiting, hiring, and assigning individuals to innovation teams
  • How an individual’s talent strengths should be factored into how innovation roles get staffed.
    1. Leadership should apply a tool like StrengthFinders™ on various workgroups to understand particular strengths at the employee level
    2. Of the 34 different talent themes, identify those that are relevant to being innovative
    3. Consider the employee’s dominant talents when staffing projects roles
  • How Innovation StylesÒ at the individual level need to be factored into how teams are formed, to ensure that the right questions, thinking, and action occurs among participants.
    1. Leadership needs to understand what stimulates the individual’s innovative thinking process, how s/he goes about pursuing innovation
    2. Team composition should be balanced in Innovation StyleÒ (i.e., Visioning, Exploring, Experimenting, and Modifying) across the entire innovation process

Further research is needed to substantiate these summary points. Part 2 on this topic will go into more detail and expand the scope of discussion on strengthening the people aspect of innovation.

It is a pleasure to share these thoughts on what it takes to innovate, and hope that it is of value to you and your organization. I welcome all likes and comments on the article.

Other Related Readings on Innovation Strategy:
Is My Company Mature Enough to Innovate
Getting My Company into a Creative Groove
Finding Your Creative Groove
Getting Back into Your Creative Groove
Whose Job is it to Make Us Innovate
Why Innovation Fails
The Virtuous Cycle to Innovation

Originally published by Bizcatalyst360

Robert Bornhofen

Robert Bornhofen

Robert Bornhofen is a practitioner-scholar who has held executive and operational positions in multiple industries. His Doctorate degree in Management offers expertise in the areas of organizational change, leadership theory, and sustaining organizational growth. As a strategist, he looks to leverage core competencies and unique offerings to enable new opportunities and business growth. Robert has done research in the adoption and success of social/digital media within organizations. He brings practical knowledge and experience in enabling organizations to transform good ideas to innovative products.

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