Fielding high-performing innovation teams

McKinsey&Company | By Matt Banholzer, Fabian Metzeler, and Erik Roth | January 2019

innovation teams 10 traits McKinseyCompany - Fielding high-performing innovation teams

Innovation is a team sport. For projects to succeed, they must be staffed with the right combination of talent. Here is how to ensure your initiatives have the players they need to win.

The CEO of a globally recognized bank is frustrated with the lack of innovation performance delivered by her company. She sets up an incubator charged with developing a portfolio of new high-growth businesses. Inside this incubator, she places teams of high performers from the core businesses of the bank in part-time roles. Recipe for success, or a road to nowhere?

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CEOs of other companies face similar challenges around innovation. They struggle to identify “intra-preneurs” within their organizations who possess the rare mix of commercial and technical skills to shepherd new products to market. Employees within R&D groups may not have the external orientation to uncover valuable customer insights, while commercial leaders often lack the technical acumen to translate client needs into product attributes. Hiring “innovators” from the outside isn’t always an effective solution as newcomers may struggle to navigate complex, operationally focused organizations.

It can be tempting for executives accountable for the delivery of critically important innovation initiatives to believe that simply assigning an initiative to high-performing talent will yield success. However, when it comes to innovation, it is rare to see individuals who possess the full range of skills needed to lead an initiative.

For starters, innovation initiatives require skills and mind-sets that are under-developed in even the highest performers. The obstacles that arise in optimizing an existing dominant business model, such as boosting same-store sales or making a factory more efficient, are well-understood. History can be a useful guide in mastering performance in these environments. Scaling a new business successfully, on the other hand, often requires the experience to respond to and navigate new contexts where the rules of success are yet to be written. Innovators must craft bold but realistic visions, conceive entirely new value propositions that sync with customer challenges, and manage extreme uncertainty. In essence, the team must operate more like a start-up that can adapt development and commercialization plans based on continuously challenging assumptions and learning what will propel their business to scale.

It’s unlikely that one person will possess all the capabilities such initiatives demand. The likelihood is even lower in large, successful organizations. Instead, our experience shows that a well-constructed team that brings together the needed abilities of a world-class innovator can compensate for the lack of “founders.” To do this, first you must understand what the critical traits are that drive the most successful innovators, and second, you must have a method of assessing your employees against these traits. With this information in hand, companies are able to form high-performing innovation teams.

Ten traits of successful innovators

Over decades of combined experience working with companies pursuing innovation-led growth and start-ups, we have identified ten traits that distinguish the most successful innovators (Exhibit 1). While many of these capabilities are well-recognized, we have seen that reframing the discussion from individuals to teams helps tremendously to unlock performance in most organizations.

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Assessing each team member’s innovation aptitude can help you build a stronger whole. The ten traits can be grouped into four categories. We find that a successful team needs a base level of competence in all four.

1. Vision

The first group of traits highlights the ability to identify opportunities and inspire others to pursue them. Articulating a compelling vision, and the skill to translate it into a differentiated value proposition that breaks through the noise of the marketplace is a talent in itself. Uncovering is an intrinsic curiosity to see the possibility in a given context and distill the most valuable insights. “Uncoverers” use these insights and pattern recognition to interpret unmet needs and define highly valuable problems to solve. Generating is the ability to develop meaningful value propositions that solve significant customer problems. The most successful “generators” meld the big-picture market context with a thorough understanding of an organization’s strategic position, including its underlying capabilities. Selling is the ability to explain the nuances of what creates the value for a new proposition and carefully tailor it to the target audience. “Sellers” are compelling enough to motivate people to sway internal stakeholders on the value of pursuing a given innovation opportunity and marshaling the required resources to drive commercialization. These people are also gifted in crafting the marketing elements of a new proposition.

2. Collaboration

People with the second collection of traits foster effective teamwork and change management, bringing cohesion to a group. Those strong at motivating tend to be charismatic leaders adept at spurring action by creating a work environment that tolerates failure as a necessary aspect of the innovation process. Networking is the essential skill in maintaining connections among all the stakeholders in a project. Successful innovators seek input from outside the team and—as importantly—outside the organization, linking with ecosystem partners such as universities, other start-ups, or incubators.

Orchestrating, meanwhile, refers to the ability to supply projects with the needed resources and to monitor the team’s activities to ensure these resources are effectively deployed; in other words, that workloads are distributed appropriately and the team can “do more with less.”

People with this skill combine attention to detail and the ability to anticipate roadblocks with an ease in developing relationships, talents that make them adept at resolving conflicts.

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3. Learning

Most entrepreneurs exhibit absorbing, a quality manifested in a deep curiosity about anything that could help their venture succeed and a willingness to explore leads as they arise. Such individuals continually pursue new ideas and quickly incorporate lessons from multiple sources.

4. Execution

The final group of traits enables quick decision-making amidst uncertainty while maintaining a realistic pace of progress. Pioneering skills enable individuals to break down ideas into an achievable sequence of activities. These team members tend to be the first to challenge the status quo, have resilience and perseverance when faced with setbacks, and quickly adapt plans to new input or conditions. Deciding encompasses strong critical-thinking skills that enable people to draw conclusions from imperfect information.

“Deciders” blend pattern recognition with a high degree of pragmatism which enables them to synthesize insights, draw implications, and get things done. Tabulating, meanwhile, is the ability to apply financial modeling to size an opportunity and then use scenario planning to de-risk a given project.

“Tabulators” use their quantitative orientation to accurately judge risks and payoffs as they plan their initiatives.

While some of these traits are complementary—for example, pioneers are often good decision makers, owing to their ability to forge paths and make judgments amidst uncertainty—almost no individual will possess all ten. Some leaders are great at inspiring others, but poor at timely delivery of results. Others excel at planning but need help with selling the vision. Just as the best entrepreneurs know what qualities they lack and surround themselves with individuals who complement their strengths, so corporate innovation teams must ensure that the group as a whole represents all the key capabilities. A team lacking people with uncovering skills will likely end up focusing on incremental change. A group without networking capabilities may end up tackling a problem outside the company’s core competence without spotting an opportunity to bring in a partner.

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