Have you ever been part of an innovation project team? How well and effectively did you and your colleagues resolve the innovation challenge? And how enjoyable was your creative teamwork?
Working in an effective innovation team can be a highlight of your professional career. But the individual members of a team only click well into gear if the group is well-composed and comprises of different yet complementing personalities. Today, let’s discuss how you can compose well-balanced innovation teams as an important prerequisite that your project delivers novel, meaningful and original ideas and tangible innovation results.
Background: Leading an innovation project
Suppose your company wants to tackle a major innovation challenge, and you’ve been selected to resolve this by organizing and running an innovation project. As the project owner, you’re now responsible for specifying the key project parameters. You need to:
Frame the initial innovation challenge (e.g., “How to create new ice cream products for 6-10-year-old kids”) and specify the related innovation type (e.g., product innovation).
Highlight why this project is essential for your organization, and make sure that the budget allocated to the project reflects its relative importance.
Settle on an innovation process method (such as Design Thinking or our X-IDEA innovation method) that fits the challenge and innovation type.
Select a professional innovation company or facilitator (in line with your budget) to competently guide you to the desired results within the available budget.
Finally, you need to ask people-related questions: How many people can you involve overall (or in a particular process stage)? How many days can you reasonably expect them to dedicate to your project? And last but not least: Who are we going to invite to help us work on the project? And how are we going to split those workshop delegates up into effective innovation teams?
Diversity: a key success factor in composing effective innovation teams
What success factors make a team effective? You may think of factors such as trust, joint goals, and open communication here, and you’re right. But when it comes to composing effective innovation teams, another factor rules: diversity.
In innovation, diversity means that we want to field project teams that represent a rich mix of backgrounds related to professional knowledge and skills and a broad take on life and the human experience. Why do we favor using diverse project teams when working on an innovation challenge — and here, especially during Ideation? Diverse teams think broader about their project case and contribute more viewpoints and perspectives. Hence, they tend to produce better insights and a bigger, richer idea pool compared to monogamous teams.
While building heterogeneous innovation project teams, we have to consider up to five aspects of diversity: business function, culture and nationality, gender, generation, and, most importantly, cognitive styles. Let’s discuss each of these aspects below.
1. Functional diversity: Ensure core functions and key business units are present
When working on a vital innovation project, make sure that each innovation team represents a broad, diverse range of related business functions. Typically, this includes the core functions of the corporate value chain; depending on the project, you may also want to add selected members from supporting functions, too.
For example, a few years ago, we worked with a leading F&B company on a significant, 9-month long innovation project initiative that involved 11 category brands. The company nominated more than a hundred delegates from a wide range of business functions such as Marketing, Sales, Manufacturing, Procurement, Communications & Marketing Services, and Category & Channel Sales Development.
Do you want to add even more functional diversity to your innovation project teams? Then also invite key customers or suppliers to broaden your thinking even further.
In the said project, the teams visited consumers and channel partners during the initial Xploration phase of our X-IDEA innovation process method. The project owners also invited the creative leads from their activation agencies to join a 3-day long IDEA workshop that concluded the major innovation project initiative.
2. Gender diversity: Balance the sexes in an innovation team
For as much as possible, balance the number of male and female delegates in a project team. A good gender mix ensures that each project team can equally well contribute gender-specific perspectives to the case. Moreover, teams tend to be more motivated and energetic if they comprise of members of both sexes. Last but not least, fielding gender-mixed teams also helps to avoid gender stereotyping.
Having said this, for certain projects, we may even want to break up the mixed teams into gender-specific teams temporarily. For example, more than a decade ago, Thinkergy guided Beiersdorf’s Nivea brand through a project that aimed to create new lip care concepts for Asian consumers. For one Ideation exercise, we split the delegates into “all-male’ and “all-female” gender teams. Then they played “Battle of the Sexes” — a creativity technique that uses gender stereotypes to provoke more extraordinary ideas catering to gender-specific wants and needs.
3. Intercultural diversity: Balance and mix nationalities and cultures
Innovation projects with Multinational Corporations typically involve multicultural delegates. Here it is essential to aim for an equal number of local and international members in each team. If possible, avoid having international delegates from one country working in the same team, as otherwise, they may end up hanging out together all the time. Moreover, instead of focusing on nationalities, better group the delegates based on geographical regions before distributing them into well-mixed but balanced intercultural innovation teams.
For example, in 2017-18, Thinkergy ran a 2-year X-IDEA Innovation Project with Covestro. The first project workshop took place in Leverkusen, and unsurprisingly, Germans made for the majority of participants. However, we also had delegates from other European countries (France, Italy, and the UK) plus a few oversea visitors (from China, Taiwan, Japan). The project owner and I made sure that we split those non-German participants well across each of the three Xploration teams. One year later, we hosted a second IDEA-workshop in Shanghai. This time the bulk of participants came from China, and we equally spread out the remaining delegates from other Asian countries and Europe across each of the two innovation teams.
4. Generational diversity: Mix different generations
An innovation project should also represent a fair cross-section of the various generations that we can find in the workplace at present. As an innovation project owner, you may lean towards predominantly inviting Gen Xers and Millennials to help you with your project. However, better also include a few motivated Baby Boomers to allow the teams to benefit from the deep work and life experience they can contribute to an innovation workshop. Depending on the project, also consider adding a few Post-Millennials to each team; these Gen Z-colleagues may have just joined your company as management trainees or may currently do an internship in it.
The Swiss innovation company Brainstore takes generational diversity even one step further. They like to invite high school kids to join the Ideation stage of their innovation process called “The Idea Machine.” At Thinkergy, we once also invited undergraduate students to join an innovation project workshop in Thailand with mixed results. However, using external teens or young adults for Ideation is a worthwhile option to consider, particularly for innovation challenges focusing on consumer technology or lifestyle products and services.
5. Cognitive diversity: Let people play on their preferred cognitive styles at the right time
When it comes to composing well-balanced innovation teams, the icing on the cake is to consider the personalities or, even better, the preferred cognitive styles of all the delegates. If you know everyone well enough, you may be able to gauge the personalities of each participant. However, a more professional approach is to profile all innovation project participants with a sophisticated cognitive profiling method such as our TIPS innovator profiling test.
For example, in the Master in Business Innovation (MBI) program at Bangkok University, we profile all graduate students of a new intake with TIPS. The test results give us detailed information on the preferred styles to think, work, interact, live, and innovate of each student. More importantly, we learn with which of 11 innovator profiles each student comes out of TIPS, and on what relative development level this profile is located. Later on, I use this information to develop 3-4 combinations of different innovation teams. Thereby, each team comprises cognitively diverse profile compositions that constitute the right mix of styles and TIPS base orientations (theories, ideas, people, systems). And of course, I also consider intercultural and gender aspects while composing these teams, too. Later on, we use these team lists to field different project teams to work on real-life innovation project cases that relate to each course in the program.
The Program Director of the MBI program of Bangkok University, Dr. Xavier Parisot summed up his experiences with using TIPS to compose effective innovation project teams as follows:
As a Program Director, I must ensure that our MBI corporate participants will acquire actual knowledge, empower their soft skills, and improve their leadership capabilities. To achieve such a goal, the complementation of skills and competences in each work team is a key challenge. The application of the TIPS method helped us achieve that goal in a powerful way, but it also increases the satisfaction level and the perceived quality of the results.
Using a cognitive test requires an additional investment for the test fees. On the other hand, it may save companies costs by allowing an innovation project owner to inviting people only to those stages that suit their cognitive preferences and talents (more on this in an earlier article titled “Who shines when in the creative process?”).
Conclusion: Succeed in innovation with the right mix of talents
Many years ago, I jobbed part-time as a D.J. for a few years. To draw people onto the dance floor, one song I played regularly was “Last night a D.J. saved my life” by Indeed. It contains the line: “There’s not a problem that I can’t fix, ‘Cause I can do it in the mix.” The same message holds true for an innovation project: There’s not an innovation challenge you can’t fix if you know how to compose the right mix of talents for your innovation teams.