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How to build a team on Innovators

As increasing competition, new technologies and evolving customer expectations

continue to disrupt nearly every industry, business leaders are turning to innovation as a way to keep their companies relevant. The standard solution is to create teams that focus explicitly on innovation. The problem? Most of these teams struggle to innovate, often delivering incremental improvements at best.

Why is that? According to McKinsey, many CEOs struggle to identify people good at innovation — the “intrapreneurs” within their organizations who possess the rare mix of skills, motivation and attitude to successfully bring new ideas to market. Simply telling a team to focus on innovation won’t suffice. You need to thoughtfully select people with the right mindset for the team.

This problem fundamentally begins with how most companies evaluate talent. They have well-established processes for assessing employee competence in their current jobs, but those same tools can’t determine an employee’s capability for innovation. In fact, the skills that are valued in traditional roles often get in the way of the behaviors needed for innovation.

Most organizations reward employees for their ability to manage. Their job is to follow known processes and best practices to limit risk in order to deliver a predictable result. The people who are best at this struggle with risk taking and trying new ideas in search of unpredictable results, which are the behaviors required for innovation. If you’re building a team of innovators, you have to focus on a different set of qualities.

Here are some of the qualities to look for:

1. Unafraid of failure. The fear of failure prevents most people from taking the risks necessary for innovation. If you only do things that you know are going to work, you’re going to leave the best opportunities on the table. There’s no innovation without risk — they’re fundamentally related. When building a team of innovators, you’re looking for people who are unafraid of failure, yet unwilling to fail.

2. Found on the fringes. When Brad Bird was hired at Pixar to develop a new animated movie, he recruited the supposedly disgruntled and “misfit” workers from within the company. These people were dissatisfied with the way things were and believed there was a better way of doing things. The result of their efforts was “Toy Story,” which set a new standard for animated films. To do something that’s never been done before, look for those talented employees who are unsatisfied with the status quo — people either so frustrated that they’re looking for a new job or are stuck on the edges of the organization because they’re viewed as too difficult to work with. These are the employees most likely to succeed at innovation.

3. Deals well with uncertainty. The traditional interview process tends to focus on someone’s technical qualifications. It identifies what they’ve done in the past, when what you really need to know is how they think. Whether you’re building an innovation team from internal candidates or hiring from the outside, you need to see how someone reacts to uncertainty. One way is to ask them to solve a Fermi question. If you want to see how they react to a new problem, ask them, “How many barbers are there in New York City?” Have them use things they know, or can deduce, to develop an estimate while you watch them work out their guess. If the person insists on more information or is uncomfortable trying to find a solution to this problem, they’re not right for your team. You don’t need to worry about their specific answer — in fact, their answer doesn’t matter. What you’re seeing is how they deal with uncertainty and how they leverage knowledge from other domains to develop an estimate. Innovation is about embracing challenges to develop new insights.

4. Actions, not words. When building a team, you need people that can actually be successful when the pressure is on. It’s tough to get at this by just talking with someone. You need to see the person in action. Here are a few tactics you might try:

Play a game with them. The basketball court is a very effective place to evaluate someone under pressure. It’s not about skill, but how they react when you pass them the ball. Do they pass it right back to avoid making a mistake? Do they evaluate the situation and adjust to opportunities as they evolve? Do they try to score by themselves? Innovation requires people who are able to adapt under pressure to dynamic changes in responsibilities, and who truly believe the team is more important than the individual.

Take them to a bad restaurant. People tell you a lot about themselves when they’re put in an uncomfortable situation. Take them to lunch at a restaurant that you know has terrible service and average food at best. When things start to go wrong, see if they get frustrated. If they don’t get frustrated, let yourself get frustrated and see how they react. Innovation requires that people deal effectively with tough situations. You need to know if they can stay focused and help the team stay focused on what really matters.

Do a test run. Hire the person for one day to work with your team on a real problem that you’re facing. At the end of the day, ask the person to spend the evening coming up with a plan as to how they might overcome the current challenges, and then have them present their proposal to you and your team the next morning. You’ll both learn pretty quickly if the person is a good fit. Innovation requires you to embrace the brutal truths. To be an effective team member, they can’t be afraid to call things out that are going wrong, and to be able to receive critical feedback and use it to learn.

Building a team of innovators requires time, patience and a bit of creativity. Instead of normal hiring practices, identify people who effectively solve unexpected problems, are excited by dynamic roles, stay focused on what really matters when things don’t go as planned and are willing to speak up when they see something is wrong. When you get the right people in place, you can actually achieve innovation instead of just talking about it.

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