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5 Ways To Build Innovative Teams

Implement these five practices to pave the way for innovation to flourish in your organization at a team and company-wide level.

In 2012, researchers at Google embarked on a mission to answer the question, “What makes a team effective here?” Code named “Project Aristotle,” the results showed that psychological safety was the number one factor most strongly correlated with team effectiveness.

Photo: Wendy Ryan, CEO of Kadabra | Credit: Kadabra

Psychological safety is a term originally coined by Amy Edmondson, a Harvard Business School Professor. She described it as an element of team culture characterized by the belief that it is safe for team members to take risks, such as speaking up when they disagree with something, suggesting a novel approach or idea to solve problems or sharing personal doubts, fears or concerns.

It’s easy to imagine why a company like Google, known for invention and innovation, would be motivated to invest resources in researching team effectiveness. There is a widely held belief in the tech world today that successful innovation is largely the product of teamwork, not individual effort. No matter how creative or smart you are, follows this reasoning, you alone are no match for the combined innovative capacity of a team of smart people working together toward a common goal.

My company, Kadabra, works with leaders and their organizations who want to become more innovative. Their motivations to innovate vary. Some want to increase workforce diversity and become more inclusive in their talent acquisition and development practices. Some want to bring new products and services to market more quickly. While others are concerned about their future sustainability.

While working with a diverse set of clients and innovation drivers, we’ve found that organizations with the most innovative teams consistently do these five things:


1. Incorporate psychological safety in company culture

Leaders at the top of the organization on down model transparency and personal vulnerability. They freely admit their mistakes and accept feedback on how they could improve graciously. People who speak up at all hands meetings to ask critical questions or offer suggestions receive positive encouragement from top leaders, not irritation or retribution.


2. Reduce hierarchy (real or implied) between team members

Formal roles or titles do not guarantee the best thinking, ideas or expertise will emerge from predictable sources. Sometimes, expertise can inhibit innovation; particularly when formal roles and hierarchy between team members is reinforced. In that case, team members will give more airtime and support to the highest ranking person in the room, not to the person with the most innovative idea.


3. Assign team members with diverse skill sets

Assign team members with complementary vs. duplicative thinking and skill sets. It might seem obvious that less is more when it comes to having team members with similar skills, backgrounds and experiences working together when the goal is to generate novel solutions.

Instead of assigning all of your principal engineers to the same high profile project, for example (which happens more often than you might think, for fear that someone’s ego will be bruised if they are left off the roster), assign one or two principal engineers and then round out the rest of the team with people from other disciplines. You might be surprised to hear what Sergio from Product Marketing or Jane from Technical Support comes up with.


4. Define mission and success criteria

Ensure the team’s mission (why) and success criteria (what, where and by when) are clear up front, then let the team decide how they will get there. Nothing is more frustrating for a team than when its purpose for being is left ambiguous. Or, when no one can articulate for the team what success might look like or how it’s work will be evaluated. Ambiguity around the how is good–that’s where innovations are born on teams. Ambiguity around purpose or real world constraints, such as deadlines–not so much.


5. Respect the need for ‘team time’

New teams do not hit the ground running, as much as leaders would like to think they do. Team time–the necessary rituals around getting to know each other, establishing team norms around behaviors, how we will organize the work, etc.–may seem like fluff, housekeeping or time wasters when the pressure to innovate quickly is high. The most innovative teams pay attention to these details and invest in team time on the front end and on a regular basis–revisiting how the team is doing its work and how that can be improved.


Implementing these five practices can pave the way for innovation to flourish in your organization both within your teams as well as more broadly. When employees feel safe to share new ideas regardless of their role or expertise, when human system needs like care, connection and autonomy are attended to, and when purpose is clear and compelling, innovation is the natural outcome.


Wendy Ryan is a leadership expert, equity & inclusion advocate, author, and the CEO of Kadabra, an interdisciplinary team of leadership and culture experts on a mission to grow exceptional leaders and teams through learning conscious leadership and BRAVE Cultures™. With over 25 years of combined experience in human resources, organizational development, non-profit leadership and executive coaching Wendy has partnered with hundreds of individuals and organizations throughout the U.S. helping front-line through C-suite leaders and board members achieve success as individuals and in teams.


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