Setting up a Successful Innovation Team


If innovation is a team sport, then right team is more important than a star player. Google learned from project Aristotle, that intangible norms make the difference, more than traditional characteristics of a successful project. 

Setting up a Successful Innovation Team

Building an Innovation Team

There are so many books, articles, trainings, workshops, and consultants on team building. I do not feel the need to add another. However, from personal experience as a career in technology leadership with fortune 500, and now innovation coaching, I am compelled to briefly share the following tips to building a strong innovation team.

  • Pick the right team leader – Innovation mindset, explorer at heart.
  • Provide a clear purpose, values, risk tolerance, and success criterion.
  • Inspire ideation, support exploration, and accept failures (biggest item).
  • Do not box the team in space, time, and policies.
  • Let them challenge the status quo and question the norms and policies.
  • Have fun-filled team events to build trustworthy bonds.
  • Accept the fact that in an innovation team, not everyone is an innovator, nor does everyone need to be as creative either. You also need a social butterfly to stir up collaborations, and resolve personality differences,

True leaders build self-propelled high-performing teams. Individuals are inspired to personally excel and support others to succeed, collectively achieving much more than the sum of individual capacities and competencies. My limited experience and my mentors were not too far off from what Google discovered in a 2-year study through project Aristotle.

Google’s Dream-team

Google launched Project Aristotle to know why some teams excelled while others fell behind. Abeer Dubey, Google’s director of people analytics, put together a team of statisticians, organizational psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and researchers to help solve the riddle.

Over 2 years they studied 180 Google teams, conducted 200-plus interviews, and analyzed over 250 different team attributes. There was no clear pattern of characteristics that could be plugged into a dream-team generating algorithm. Things began to fall into place when Google started considering intangible group norms – the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how a team functions when it gathers. The intangible norms may be unspoken or openly acknowledged, but their influence could be often profound.

With a new lens and some added direction from a research study on collective intelligence (abilities that emerge out of collaboration) by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College, Project Aristotle’s researchers went back to the data looking for unspoken customs. Specifically, any team behaviors that magnified the collective intelligence of the group. Through Google’s Re:Work website (, a resource that shares Google’s research, ideas, and practices on people operations, Rozovsky outlined the five key characteristics of enhanced teams.

Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).

Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses objectives and key results to help set and communicate short- and long-term goals.

Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary, financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for everyone, for example.

Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgment that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

Engineering the perfect team is more subjective than we would like but focusing on these five components increases the likelihood that you will build a dream team. Google found that teams with psychologically safe environments had employees who were less likely to leave, more likely to harness the power of diversity, and ultimately, who was more successful.

On the personal side, during one of the short phone conversations with an HR friend in Google, she asked Ripi, can you help us understand how we can strengthen our innovation culture? I had no answer since I always look up to Google for lessons in innovation. To me, they have the Robust & Resilient innovation profile. A week later, I realized that Google probably never stopped asking that question and that is why they are where they are. I also remember a conversation with a major auto supplier during their time of deep trouble with their product, noticeably confident in their innovation capability.

On the innovation side, I notice that followers claim they know how to innovate, while trendsetters like Google and Airbus keep asking how to innovate better?

“The problem with the world is that intelligent people are full of doubts,
while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
– Charles Bukowski 

In Summary,

Structured innovation also needs team norms that provide meaning and sense of psychological safety required to explore.

If you like this blog post, you will like my book – “Inspiring Next Innovation Framework” available on Amazon and “Inspiring Next Innovation Mindset” available on Amazon.

If you wish to engage with me in a conversation on developing Innovation Framework and building Innovation Mindset, register for my free webinars on Mar 18, 2021 and April 01, 2021, co-hosted by Nerac.

How Innovative is your Organization?


It is very much possible to have a structured process to innovate consistently.

Just a few years ago, I was grappling with this question, and dancing around the possible hypothesis in futile attempt to convince my superiors on the preferred innovation investment opportunities.  I wish I had this framework a decade ago while leading advanced technology for fortune 500 companies.

Innovative is your Organization

What is your Innovation Profile?

Can we assign stars to how good is your organization in innovating, just like we assign stars to movies, hotels, books, and shopping cart items? Of course, you can, and give yourself **** saying there is always room for improvement. Here is our definition that we have successfully applied over the last 5 years.

Aware (*): These are the companies that have successfully innovated and know how to.  They just cannot sustain it for one of the many reasons.

Agile Follower (**): These companies innovate in response to market demand and successfully compete on cost and time to market. They are listening to the customers, and benchmark themselves against the competition.

They want to know “What” and are good at “How”.

Smart Forecaster (***): These companies innovate in anticipation of market demand and try to be amongst the first few in the marketplace to easily recover their investment.  They empathize with the customer to understand the unarticulated needs and invest in competitive intelligence to predict their moves.

They ask “Why” in addition to their understanding of “What” and “How”.

Visionary Trendsetter (****): These companies innovate and create a demand. They educate the customers on why and how of their offerings, while making the competition irrelevant.

They start with “Why Not”.

Robust & Resilient (*****): These are the trendsetters, who have also built so much talent, knowledge, branding, and cash reserves that they can absorb any emerging disruption, even if they missed a trendsetting scenario.

With this simplistic definition, you should be able to see where you are and where you want to be.

Building your Innovation Profile

To move from one profile to another, you need to progressively create a strategic roadmap, and systematically build the expertise to create innovative offerings. Numerous best practices can be categorized under 4 tracks, and they change with profile. So a 5×4 matrix of framework is what helps companies build an innovation profile and the culture of innovation.

Innovation Strategy: Defines what products and services would a company develop with timeline to capture the market share. Set of tools progressively add rigor to the roadmap through Benchmarking, Portfolio balancing, Project prioritization, Competitive intelligence, Smart forecasting, and Scenario based planning.

Innovation Capital: Defines what Talent, Knowledge, Assets, and IP, are required when to support the innovation strategy. Set of tools guide subject matter expertise & leadership development, High performance team building, Knowledge augmentation, leveraging networks, Succession planning; all using novel visual maps.

Innovative Activity: Defines the process to systematically develop new products, reducing risk and cost. The Basis is a 5-step innovation value chain from ideation to monetization. This guides the team through white space or a market demand, and ends with an emotionally engaged customer, passing through risk and cost reduction check points.

Lean Innovation: Aligns products, processes, employees, customers, and business metrics, to continuously improve the efficiency and productivity of the enterprise. This set of tools guide the employee morale and customer engagement to support management objectives.

A case for Innovation Framework

A significant value contributed by the framework comes from sequence, dependence, and integration, where tools use a common set of parameters and indicators across the enterprise.  This enables employees to break through the silos and ceilings, holding the company growth. The fact that everyone talk same language, works from the same page, provides synergy benefits making the whole greater than sum of individual pieces.

Innovation Mindset

If you are happy with yesterday, you are not likely to do anything new today.

In addition to processes and tools, you also need to build the next mindset. “The innovation killers are almost always neatly disguised as protectors of the organization” says Thomas Koulopoulos.

Struggle to Innovate

There are several reasons holding executives back from taking steps to create innovation-driven differentiation to change their destiny. Some highly visible aspects include leadership mindset – quarter to quarter performance, incentives, risk-averse style, too much familiarity with the market, etc. The keys steps to change the organizational mindset are show here.


Unshackle the Past

Initiatives such as six-sigma which add value to repeatable activities such as manufacturing, are not particularly suited for new product development. Lean helps with productivity, and perhaps innovation at the process level, not so much at ideation for content or creative outcomes. When people say, innovation is unaffordable; I ask Do you know the cost of not innovating?

Reboot Leadership

Innovation leadership is about creating a space, where people are willing and able to work hard, share, and combine talent and passion to innovatively solve a problem. Innovation leaders are open to rapid continuous change, willing to take risks, embrace the iterative nature of innovation, align innovation strategy with overall business purpose, stay out of the way of people innovating, accept failure, and build communities that enjoy exploration. Leaders understand that ultimately, innovation is more about mindset than skill set, a mental muscle rather than handcraft.

Re-ignite Creativity

If we agree that innovation is a mental muscle, then we accept that it needs a regular workout, a conscious effort, several activities that over some time can build the mental muscle. These include inspiring everyday language, weekly innovation minute in staff meetings, quarterly open ideation competition, hackathons, and an annual innovation summit or open day. Hiring an innovator is trickier than we think. A typical hiring process, which is designed to quickly eliminate potential low performers, also ends up identifying an innovator as a misfit. Promoting an innovator comes with a challenge on people skills and might require a dual career path for retention.

Embrace Exploration and Accept Failures

Researchers in basic science know that a large percentage of experiments will fail, and every failure conveys valuable information, and they are eager to get it before the competition does. On the other side, the corporate managers, vary of failure, typically do whatever they can to make sure that the test is perfect right out from the start. Exceptional organizations recognize failure as a necessary by-product of exploration. They also realize that they do not have to do big experiments with large budgets. Often a small pilot, a dry run of a new technique, or a simulation will suffice.  Failures are a significant contributor to building a strong character, confidence, and a believable personality. I have a difficult time working with those, who claim they have never failed. Either the claim is false, or the explorer in them is non-existent. In addition to subject matter learning, failure breaks down our egos, and promotes team bonding and integrity.

Please Appreciate

Innovation capability development is a long and hard journey to build the mental muscle. Just like building the physical muscle requires regular visits to the gym, proteins for months, adequate rest, and a coach; The mental muscle requires discipline, consistency, commitment, patience, and coaching. Once you are on your way, please give this muscle enough time and energy to develop.

In Summary,

Innovation can be structured, and organizations innovation profile can be built to address strategic growth objectives. It is not a magic. Although it is not a perfect science either. It is probably partly art and partly sports. Requiring practice and building the mental muscle

If you like this blog post, you will like my books – “Inspiring Next Innovation Framework” available on Amazon. and “Inspiring Next Innovation Mindset” available on Amazon.

If you wish to engage with the author of these two book in a conversation, please register for online sessions scheduled for March 18, and April 1 2021 at 9AM ET co-hosted by Nerac.

Where does innovation start – with an idea or a need?

The answer to this question is – you will never know. Innovation is an idea-need match making that happens at the subconscious level. At the conscious level, the innovator believes idea came first, while the entrepreneur goes after the need first. While both may have been in the subconscious for a while waiting for a trigger to connect the dots.

Fundamental Innovation Process

Innovation Value Chain can be described as a series of connected steps, which lead to an innovative product, service, process, or a business model. Successful outcomes typically require an innovator to make assumptions at each step, validate or challenge them at the next step, go back if required, continuously build upon new learnings, and iteratively closeout on the purpose.

Innovation Value Chain

Deep Market Place Insight

The first major step in a structured innovation process is to define the need – a problem worth solving (customer insight) and the complimentary step is to see what already exists or is in works to solve the problem you have identified (competitor insight). At times you may need to address the regulatory hurdles as well.

Structured Ideation

This is the most creative and elusive step of the innovation, and generally, the source of the myth that you cannot teach innovation, or innovators are born. Ideation may not be science, but it is certainly not magic. It is probably an art, and sustained practice gets you to a state of mind that is continuously generating great ideas. Experience has shown that the ideas are not a random occurrence, but rather triggered by some form of an intellectual stimulus. This implies that we can create a stimulating environment or an exercise to generate hundreds of ideas. Quite often, an ideation session can lead to new markets, in addition to serving a specific pre-defined objective.

Market needs and Ideas can be iteratively refined once you realize and start to pursue the opportunity. In some sense, an innovator comes up with an idea, may see or create the need, that consumers may not yet see. An entrepreneur looks for market need/opportunity and figures out how to creatively meet it. I believe that it is a cognitive and elusive step, that artists can understand.

Purposeful Qualification

After a couple of iterations between marketplace problem and solution ideas, you will get to the stage of assessment of their worth. At this point, you must ask these three questions before investing any resources.

(1) Value Proposition: Does it add value to a customer/user/consumer?

(2) Purpose & Ethics Check: Does it fit your self-defined purpose and self-imposed ethical standards, in addition to being legally compliant? And

(3) Concept Qualification: Can you deliver it profitably, to sustain or grow your own business?

These steps will be iterative, more often than desired. It takes a bit of practice to get good at it.

Creative Execution

This is where you convert a qualified concept into reality. Most organizations and teams have a project management and gated process to mitigate execution risk. The ability to learn and adapt is still the key to successful innovation. Balanced portfolio approach can provide both stability and growth.

Alternatively – ISO 56002

ISO 56002:2019 Innovation Management System Guidance defines these 5 steps-

  1. Identify Opportunities
  2. Create Concepts
  3. Validate Concepts
  4. Develop Solutions
  5. Deploy Solutions

If you are interested in learning more about this process, please register for a free conversation with the author of the book on “Inspiring Next Innovation Value Chain”.

Buy Inspiring Next series Volume 2 – Innovation Value chain on Amazon.

If you have an opinion on the content presented above, please engage in a conversation and lets us refine it together.


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