Do You Need a Team of Innovators or an Innovative Team?

I’ve been working on a research project looking at innovativeness in project teams and it’s given me the opportunity to go back through the evidence of what makes innovative teams. Without giving you the long literature review I can tell you that this is a really well worked area over more than two decades. However, the good news is that there is a body of accumulated evidence on the factors that promote innovative behaviour in teams. In short, we have an evidence-base of what works and what doesn’t.
One business-school academic who has produced a significant amount of research on the subject is Professor Michael West of the Aston Business School in the UK. I first met Michael at an applied psychology conference in 1997 when he was a keynote speaker and I was impressed by the practical focus of his research. Recently I’ve gone back to his work because he is one of the rare business school academics who recognise the importance of both creativity and execution in the innovation process. Tim and I have also written about the two sides of innovation and it has become the basis for much of our own research and consulting work.

If you break innovation into a mix of idea generation and execution then it becomes pretty obvious that innovation teams need to be good at different things to successfully innovate. Focussing on idea generation and creativity rarely results in more innovations. On the other hand, a process for implementing new ideas, without support for creativity and bold experiments usually results in a lot of small improvements, but little game-changing innovation.

A very important study of Michael West’s that I keep going back to was published as long ago as 1996 in the Journal of Applied Psychology, but it’s been very heavily cited since then. Using a sample of 27 senior management teams from 35 UK hospitals, West and Anderson looked at the relationship between team composition, team processes and innovation. I think the results have a very important message for innovation managers.

The best predictors of radicalness and novelty was the presence of individual innovators. However, the overall level of innovation was closely linked to group processes that are related to execution such as commitment to objectives, participation and task orientation to ‘get the job done’. Putting together a team of innovators is important but unless this is backed up with an execution discipline, the results are less likely to appear.

An individual innovator may have many good ideas but a task-oriented team of innovators will realise the value of the idea.

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2 thoughts on “Do You Need a Team of Innovators or an Innovative Team?

  1. This is a very interesting space for exploration. The 2008 Ready to Innovate – Conference Board and Americans for the Arts paper showed that how education and business perceive creativity and innovation is quite different. While education sees problem solving as the main application of creativity, business sees problem identification/articulation as the best demonstration of creativity. I wonder if trying to separate innovation into creativity and execution creates a false dichotomy. Although I’m not prone to advocating for Steve Jobs’ approach a quote from him captures how I see creativity and execution co-existing. He stated that,

    “I actually think there’s very little distinction between an artist and a scientist … to me, they’re people who pursue diiferent paths headed to the same goal, which is to express what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit”

    The ‘itch’ to bring something to life is what defines innovation for me and whether an individual or team is particularly skilled at ideation or execution is more a product of preference, experience and training than a product of stages in a process.

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