How to Build an Innovation Team That Truly Innovates

Teams that are convened to generate new ideas often wind up recycling old ones. But it's not impossible to innovate your innovation process.

A new year marks an opportunity for renewal, so a lot of executives at this very moment are doing more thinking than usual about how to spark innovation and bring in new ideas. (Signs to look for: furrowed brows, longer hours, more references to Good to Great in meetings than usual.)

Ironically, the solution they come up with has a good chance of being an old-fashioned committee or task force. A group convenes; a few old ideas get dusted off and kicked around; a report gets written; little changes.

They must have a mandate to come up with a real solution that is needed, rather than be told to play in the sandbox.

Author and association consultant Anna Caraveli recently wrote about this problem in an article on some of the mistakes organizations make in the name of innovation. The piece includes a table that lays out many exemplars of do-nothing committees. Some of the common flaws include:

  • Strenuously including a representative from every department (or allegedly important stakeholders) so nobody feels left out.
  • Avoidance of commercial solutions.
  • No clear definition of what the result of the group’s work should look like.
  • Keeping recommendations within familiar categories—that is, you discuss ways to tweak your membership model, but not whether the model is broken.

An innovation team that’s designed around participants’ job roles instead of their ability to think in new ways is doomed to mediocrity, according to Caraveli. “A political process of representation is one of appeasement rather than true engagement, participation and co-development,” she writes. “Participants are ‘representatives’ of various groups rather than three-dimensional individuals with a specific reason for and purpose for contributing.”

OK, but how do you identify and include those 3D individuals?

“Selecting team members requires conducting lots of interviews and having a sense of the person before inviting them,” Caraveli told me. “Once I click with a couple of people and get the sense of the dynamics of an organization, one contact leads to another. In one case, there was a general meeting of leaders from one constituency and I watched how they reacted, listened to the questions they had, etc. I then talked privately to those who emerged as potential leaders [and] got their feedback on a concept we were developing.”

She recommends skepticism about people who crow a bit too loudly about their innovation bona fides. “I am not referring to ‘professional’ innovators, futurists or those who have made a reputation as the ‘in-house provocateurs,'” she says. “I don’t mean that I exclude them; just that there is a danger when talking about innovation to end up with ‘preciousness’ and make it into a cute, extracurricular activity, versus the way you make decisions and solve problems.”

The CEO doesn’t have to be a direct participant in the process, Caraveli says. But a leader needs to establish the point that the innovation team that’s come together is charged with doing more than assembling a set of recommendations and moving on. “They must have a mandate to come up with a real solution that is needed, rather than be told to play in the sandbox,” she says. “The more real the mandate, authority and responsibility (assuming the right mix of people are on the team) the more motivated the people and the more effective the team.”

What skills do you look for when you’re trying to bring fresh ideas into your organization? And how do you make sure those ideas get acted on? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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