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7 Essential Elements to Building an Innovative Team

Let’s face it, you can’t get away with flogging the same old product or service over and over again.

One of your competitors has just come up with a new solution; more and more of your clients ask whether you have any “new innovative products”: These are some of the signs you can’t ignore anymore.

The company will soon start losing market share unless you place a lot more emphasis on innovation.

Until now, you have always been the main source of creative ideas in your team. But this is not sustainable anymore. You must build a team that is capable of coming up with new, exciting products.

But how can you build such a team? Here are 7 essential elements:

  1. Increase Employee Diversity

A large body of research shows that companies with higher levels of diversity have significantly more innovative potential than organisations with employees sharing similar backgrounds.

A BCG diversity survey showed that companies with more diverse leadership teams report significantly higher innovation revenue.

A Harvard Business Review study found that  firms with teams that are characterised with inherent diversity (e.g. gender, age), as well acquired diversity (e.g. diversity of experience and expertise), were 45% more likely to grow their market share and 70% more likely to report that the firm captured a new market during the last financial year.

Therefore, if you want to increase your organisation’s innovative potential, you should put more emphasis on diversity. For example:

  • Recruit people with different backgrounds, from different age groups, different nationalities.
  • If there is a strong gender imbalance in your organisation, try to balance it out over the years by recruiting more employees of the opposite sex.
  • When you form project teams, make sure you create diverse teams rather than forming a group consisting of like-minded individuals.

Increasing diversity in a team is not easy. It goes against our natural in-built desire of wanting to surround ourselves with people who are like us. Promoting diversity means fighting this instinct. But it is well worth it. Your reward will be more creativity and more innovation in our company.

  1. Ensure direct contact with the client at all levels

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” Jeff Bezos

Successful companies don’t innovate for the sake of innovation. The whole point of coming up with new solutions is to delight your customers.

Teams that are isolated from their real customers rarely come up with solutions that are truly valuable from the customers’ perspective. Your colleagues should have in-depth knowledge and first-hand experience of the company’s clients in order to appreciate what they really need, what would make their life better.

Wise companies ensure that it is not only the sales department that has direct contact with clients, but also the engineers, colleagues from the back office, quality insurance … essentially everybody who has a direct or indirect impact on the customer experience. And that means everybody from the company.

How is this done in practice? Here are a few examples:

  • One retail company makes it compulsory for all new employees to have a ‘shadowing day’ in one of their shops when they have a chance to see and interact with clients in real-life situations.
  • As part of their leadership development programme, all managers of a large multinational organisation took part in a market research project. The project involved interviewing many of the company’s major clients and devising plans to develop their services.
  • An IT company organises regular forums for all their colleagues to which they invite some of the key customers to talk about their dilemmas and how the company’s products help them.
  • An organisation from the financial sector interviews their clients on a regular basis and the videos are posted on the company intranet for everyone to see.

There are endless creative ways to help employees gain in-depth understanding of their customers.

Direct contact with clients does wonders when it comes to innovative thinking. With their customers’ needs in mind, people don’t brainstorm just for the sake of coming up with something new. Instead, they will focus on the real question: What can we do differently to make our customers happier?

  1. Encourage Constructive Conflict

The more diverse your team is, the higher the chances of disagreement are. This inadvertently brings us to the question of managing conflicts.

Put simply, conflict avoidance can kill a team’s performance. There is no real innovation without team members challenging each other. Healthy debate is the fuel of innovation.

Yet we are all familiar with the type of bitter conflict that can seriously damage relationships within a team. Naturally, nobody wants to be involved in this kind of conflict, so sometimes it feels easier not to express our opposing views, just to be on the safe side.

This attitude is one of the biggest enemies of innovation.

So, what is the difference between ‘good conflict’ and ‘bad conflict’? How can we facilitate the former and minimise the chances of the latter when the team interacts?

Some critical skills that team members need to develop in order to handle conflict constructively are:

  • Active listening and being curious: an openness to hearing and understanding other persons’ points of view
  • Understanding and managing emotions even in situations where tensions are high.
  • Transparency: a willingness to share candidly what is on your mind, even when it might conflict with other people’s views.
  • The ability to express our feelings and opinions without judgement or aggression.

If you improve these essential skills in your team – by coaching them and by organising training activities that focus on these areas – you can experience more openness and willingness to engage in constructive conflict. This will lead to more innovation.

  1. Making mistakes is OK

The essence of innovation is stepping off the beaten track and coming up with something new. Parting with the old ways and trying something that hasn’t been done before will naturally entail making mistakes.

“There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.” Brené Brown

It is the leader’s job to establish a ‘psychological safety net’ so that people are willing to take risks and are comfortable with failure, knowing that this is part of the process.

In some innovative companies they go as far as encouraging or even pushing employees to make mistakes on a regular basis, just to get used to the feeling. “If a new employee hasn’t made at least one big mistake in their first year, there is something wrong,” said a leader of an IT company.

Being accustomed to failure – and learning from it – makes employees more willing to try creative, out-of-the-box solutions to new problems.

Of course, establishing a company culture that encourages risk-taking and making mistakes is only possible if the leader themselves gets comfortable with occasional failure. So first of all, ask yourself: what is your own attitude towards making mistakes – how do you feel about imperfection?

If you happen to find yourself a perfectionist, it might be time for you to start practising making mistakes.

  1. Create a physical environment that fosters creativity

The physical environment has a great impact on knowledge-workers’ creativity. No wonder that a growing number companies – from small start-ups to great multinational organisations – put great focus on the design of their office space. Some of the most common tips regarding office design are:

  • Invest in comfortable seating. Backpain is the enemy of creativity.
  • Go for natural lighting.
  • Have more green plants in the office. This has been proven to increase employee satisfaction, an important factor in creativity.
  • Have communal areas where people can ‘bump into each other’ and chat informally. Good positioning of the coffee machine can make a big difference in the team dynamics 😊.

The list goes on, but maybe the most important piece of advice is:

  • Talk to people and involve them in the office design. Employees might come up with some surprisingly simple and low-cost ideas that would inspire them in the workplace.
  1. Move from the creative stage to the ‘letting go’ stage

The first stages of innovation always involve some form of idea creation or brainstorming. Lots of ideas come up during a meeting, many different possible solutions to the question at hand. This is the so-called ‘divergent phase’ of innovation.

At this stage it is important to ensure that many different ideas come to the surface, even the seemingly crazy ones. You can support the team at this stage by encouraging new ideas and discouraging criticism.

But at some point, the decision has to be made about which ideas to move forwards and which ones to let go. This ‘convergent’ phase of innovation is just as important for success.

Many companies fail to innovate successfully not because of a lack of great ideas but the inability to choose wisely which ones to take further.

Killing ideas is a necessary part of the innovation process. So learn to let go.

  1. Execution and Project Management

Innovation is an idea that is realised and generates value to the company.

When we talk about innovation, we often think about creative people coming up with brilliant ideas. Yet a large part of innovation is the actual execution of the creative plan.

Execution requires some very different skills from those in the idea-creation phase. Resources and timing must be carefully planned. Roles and responsibilities must be determined. Regular meetings need to be organised to keep everyone in the loop. Risks must be taken into account and managed.

In short, there is no successful innovation without effective project management.

This is another argument to promote diversity in the team: your best idea-creators are not necessarily your best project managers. In your team you will need both if you want your innovation project to be a success.