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Four ways to build an innovation team

Let’s imagine you have been tasked with forming a cross-functional innovation team to solve your organisation’s most-wicked problem and to develop new products or services. What is going to set your team up for success? What is the best practice?

Are you curious about what makes a successful innovation team? Here are four ways you can supercharge the innovation efforts within your organisation:

1. Create cognitive diversity

Are you someone who prefers to learn through direct experience? To jump right in and get your hands dirty? Or do you prefer to learn through abstract thinking, to mentally figure out what to do before trying it? Are you someone who, when presented with information or ideas, is more likely to evaluate the options or build on them generatively? We all have different preferences for the key stages of the creative act, and we all think differently in the ways we experience and solve complex problems.

Many leaders hire people who think like themselves. Yet there is scientific evidence that cognitive diversity has significant benefits for teams and for producing innovative results, if managed well. Research undertaken by innovation and creativity author Dr Min Basadur has found that heterogeneous teams perform more innovatively than homogeneous teams, although the reverse is true for team satisfaction. With greater diversity comes greater friction, but with greater conflict comes greater performance across all stages of an innovation process framework.

So next time you are building an innovation team, seek out cognitive diversity to ensure you have members that will consider both your problems and your solution-finding strategies from different perspectives.

2. Get external inspiration

What if you engaged creatively-minded customers to be part of your internal team, to solve your next innovation challenge? Start-ups are continually disrupting organisations and they are doing so with little or no industry experience. They have innovated successfully without the legacy constraints of existing products or services, systems, or supply chains. What they have done well is take a needs-based, customer-centred approach to innovation.

Customers can look at your challenge with a fresh perspective, minus the organisational constraints. They will often seek to create something that is meaningful to their lives. However, it is essential to select the right customers for any generative co-design work—that is, individuals with deep industry experience, openness to experience, and a strong preference for divergent thinking.

So, when your next innovation challenge arises, seek out external inspiration to push your thinking and consider solutions from different perspectives.

3. Embrace the dissidents

Have you ever found yourself in a workshop with someone who holds an opposing view on the topic of conversation? Perhaps you might feel tempted not to invite them to the next meeting.

Many organisations seek out compliance and punish deviates. Yet several scientific studies conducted by University of Amsterdam Professor in Psychology and Behavioural Economics, Carsten De Dreu, found evidence that suggests dissent among team members who each have a high stake in the decision-making stimulates creativity and divergent thinking, which can lead to more breakthrough thinking and innovation.

Thus, however tempting it might be to only bring on board people who think the same way as you into conversations, it pays to include dissidents in your innovation team who can be encouraged to think differently and to challenge the status quo. Their input may lead you towards radical innovations.

4. Promote psychological safety

Ask yourself whether your team members have permission to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed? We are often reluctant to engage in behaviours that could negatively influence our self-image, status or career advancement.

Google led a two-year research project with 180 internal teams and found that psychological safety was the key distinction between innovative and non-innovative teams. Psychological safety allows people to take risks, try new things, openly share their ideas, speak their minds and take a stand without fear of consequence—the type of behaviour indispensable for breakthrough thinking and innovation.

When Google was trying to understand psychological safety, they consulted with Harvard Professor of Leadership Amy Edmondson. Edmondson recommended asking team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following questions to ascertain their level of psychological safety:

1. If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.

2. Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.

3. People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.

4. It is safe to take a risk on this team.

5. It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.

6. No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.

7. Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

So, give your team permission to speak up, ask questions, share ideas, seek help and acknowledge mistakes. Model curiosity and create a climate where speaking up is expected and valued.

In summary, based on the above four suggestions to enhance your innovation efforts, leaders need to build a cognitively-diverse innovation team, embrace dissidents, and co-design with customers while creating a psychologically-safe environment. With the right process, skills, tools and people, organisations can unlock possibilities, achieve breakthrough thinking, and better ensure innovative outcomes.

About the Author

Evette Cordy is an innovation expert, registered psychologist and the chief investigator and co-founder at Agents of Spring. She uses curiosity and creativity to help organisations to create human-centred products and services and facilitate new ways of thinking. Evette is the author of Cultivating Curiosity: How to unearth your most valuable problem to inspire growth. Curious to find out more? Visit

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