Unlocking possibilities: How to better innovate in your business


Agents of Spring co-founder Evette Cordy. Source: Supplied.

Let’s imagine you have been tasked with forming a cross-functional innovation team to solve your organisation’s most wicked problem and to lead you to develop new products or services.

What is going to set your team up for success? What is the best practice?

Are you curious about what makes a successful innovation team? Here are four ways you can supercharge the innovation efforts within your organisation.

1. Create cognitive diversity

Are you someone who prefers to learn through direct experience, jump right in and get your hands dirty?

Or do you prefer to learn through abstract thinking, mentally figuring out what to do before trying it?

Are you someone who, when presented with information or ideas, is more likely to evaluate the options or generatively build on them?

We all have different preferences for the key stages of the creative act, and different ways we think, experience and solve complex problems.

Many leaders hire people that think like them. Yet, there is scientific evidence that cognitive diversity has significant benefits for teams and innovation outcomes if managed well. Research undertaken by innovation and creativity author Dr Min Basadur has found heterogeneous teams perform more innovatively than homogeneous teams, although the reverse is true for team satisfaction. With greater diversity comes greater friction, but with greater conflict comes greater performance across all stages of an innovation process framework.

So next time you are building an innovation team, seek out cognitive diversity to ensure you have members that will consider your problem, and find a solution from different perspectives.

2. Get external inspiration

What if you engaged creatively minded customers to be part of your internal team, to solve your next innovation challenge? Startups are continually disrupting organisations with little or no industry experience. They have successfully innovated without the legacy constraints of existing products or services, systems or supply chains. What they have done well is take a needs-based, customer-centred approach to innovation.

Customers can look at your challenge with a fresh perspective, minus the organisational constraints. They will often seek to create something that is meaningful for their lives. However, it is essential to select the right customers for any generative co-design work. Namely, individuals with deep industry experience, openness to experience, and a stronger preference for divergent thinking.  

So, when your next innovation challenge arises, seek out external inspiration to push your thinking and consider solutions from different perspectives.

3. Embrace the dissidents

Have you ever found yourself in a workshop with someone else with an opposing view on the topic of conversation? Perhaps you are tempted not to invite them to the next meeting.

Many organisations seek compliance and punish deviates. Yet, several scientific studies conducted by psychology and behavioural economics specialist Professor Carsten De Dreu found evidence that suggested dissent among team members with a high stake in decision-making stimulates creativity and divergent thinking, which can lead to more breakthrough thinking and innovation.

So, do not only bring people who think the same way that you do into conversations. It pays to include dissidents in your innovation team who are encouraged by leaders to think differently and to challenge the status quo, whose input may lead you towards radical innovations.

4. Promote psychological safety

Ask yourself whether your team members have permission to take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. We are often reluctant to engage in behaviours that could negatively influence our self-image, status or career advancement.

Google led a two-year research project with 180 internal teams and found that psychological safety was the key distinction between innovative and non-innovative teams. Psychological safety allows people to take risks, try new things, openly share their ideas, speak their minds and take a stand without fear of consequence — the type of behaviour indispensable for breakthrough thinking and innovation.

When Google was trying to understand psychological safety, they consulted with Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, who recommended asking team members how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the following questions to ascertain their level of psychological safety.

  1.    If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.
  2.    Members of this team are able to bring up problems and tough issues.
  3.    People on this team sometimes reject others for being different.
  4.    It is safe to take a risk on this team.
  5.    It is difficult to ask other members of this team for help.
  6.    No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts.
  7.    Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised.

So give your team permission to speak up, ask questions, share ideas, seek help and acknowledge mistakes. Model curiosity and create a climate where speaking up is expected and valued.

In summary, leaders need to build a cognitively diverse innovation team, embrace dissidents, co-design with customers while creating a psychologically safe environment. With the right process, skills, tools and people, organisations can unlock possibilities, breakthrough thinking, and better ensure innovation outcomes.

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