What does a garage in the 30s on 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto have in common with a family car trip during Christmas in France in 2003 and an apartment in Hangzhou in 1999 full of students? In these different contexts, contemporary business ideas and great companies were born, specifically Hewlett-Packard, Blablacar or Alibaba Group. Companies that were pioneers and that were the spearhead of businesses in areas as diverse as technology, mobility, and online shopping. But none of them would have reached what they are now without a few people (David Packard, Bill Hewlett, Frédéric Mazzella, and Jack Ma and his students) who ended up being many people, who ended up being a few hundred… who put all their will to work as a team that made possible for that ideas to reach the market.
Teams are one of the factors that Venture Capital firms value the most when it comes to investing in a company, much more than ideas. Because, needless to say, ideas, even the best ones, come to nothing without having a brilliant execution. A track record of brilliant executions, failures, and learnings can help, but neither does it consist of accumulating the best resumes. So… Where do we start? How can we create an innovation team that can deliver value and that knows how to work in the different business lifecycle stages?
One could start by reading The Innovator’s Dilemma to understand how to promote disruptive innovation and how not to miss out on new waves of innovation, or The Lean Startup to find a way to test one’s vision continuously, or even one could start learning how other companies have succeeded by reading Startup Scaleup Screwup… but how are we going to structure a team that works? How can we generate a culture that boosts real innovation? It’s simple: an innovative team is just a balance between three elements that we must prioritize.
Cognitive Diversity and Team Collaboration
Your innovative team needs to have a good mix of skills, perspectives, and approaches to work. And after several decades, we have enough data (example, example, example) to show that diverse teams beat homogenous teams. But it is not a matter of just gender or just dispersion of geographies but of mixing any kind of cognitive diversity so that the result is richer and more prosperous and of preventing everyone from ending up talking and talking to like-minded people. Team members that always agree with each other rarely innovate.
That said, if there are constant disagreements and tension among the team, you will be stuck forever. Cognitive diversity needs to be collaborative, not conflictual.
Innovative teams collaborate and benefit from their diversity: they communicate when conflicts emerge, come up with solutions, and fail until they arrive at a satisfactory outcome.
Psychological Safety and Creative Conflict
There is plenty of evidence about why psychological safety is crucial to innovative work. Comfort around admitting and discussing mistakes, learning from failure, and open sharing of ideas, lead to high performance. And high performing teams are also trusting teams, as Simon Sinek highlights in this video. When colleagues trust one another, they are more likely to share their opinions in ways that improve work while respecting others.
But we need to face conflict and a healthy dose of disagreement as part of the process. Some amount of friction is essential to progress, as teams that remain in their comfort zone cannot come up with out-of-the-box ideas. Innovative teams balance psychological safety and creative conflict.
If you are curious about psychological safety means, here you can find some ideas:
- Open dialogue, without silence, self-censoring or people keeping their opinion or ideas to themselves.
- People sharing their opinions and ideas confidently and, if a conflict emerges, the team as a whole will solve it productively.
- Fearless behavior and mindset: there is no fear of being ignored, ridiculed, punished, or fired.
- Emotions are welcome and acknowledged, not bottled or ignored.
- Conversational turn-taking – leaders speak last and quiet voices are included and not interrupt.
Crazy Moonshots and Continuous Reflection
Moonshots are attempts to create ambitious results through revolutionary innovation and a way to encourage bold thinking. It gives companies an edge and allows them to build something that can shape the future. They often take steps in directions where many others fear looking but, if we look backward in time, many of the situations we did not imagine 30 years ago are true now.
However, innovative teams cannot solely run on crazy moonshot ideas. Practical achievements need adjustments, efficiency, and reflection. Continuous improvements on measurable, specific, achievable goals not only motivate a team but also create innovative products that users can weigh in on.
Moonshot ideas take a lot of resources to implement. Continuous reflection brings in experimentation. Innovative teams are balanced teams that explore crazy moonshot ideas while continuously reflecting upon them.
These three requirements for innovative teams all call for balance. Going too far off one end of the scale pushes teams into stagnation. And innovation needs to be continuous. Teams need to take the time to find balance in these requirements and leaders need to understand that innovation is 100% teamwork. Because we all know that David, Bill, Frédéric and Jack couldn’t have built anything without their people.
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