Team Sports - Tips for building and directing innovation project teams

by Peter Merrill

The spikes in knowledge that have occurred throughout history all have leaders associated with them. The myth that surrounds these leaders is they all were lone geniuses. In truth, the most famous leaders worked with teams of highly skilled people but, sadly, history often just gave the leader credit for the breakthroughs of others.

Take, for example, Steve Jobs, who was a skilled marketer. In his absence, Apple languished. But the early technical skill came from co-founder Steve Wozniak, and the iPod was really only an adaptation of the existing MP3 player. 

A hundred years ago, Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he created one of the greatest research teams in history in Menlo Park, NJ. During the Renaissance 500 years ago, Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine Chapel on his own. His core team included a dozen diverse and highly skilled artists and engineers working with him.

Building your team

When innovators are tasked with a project—whether it’s an incremental improvement or a radical innovation—the first and biggest challenge is deciding who should be on the team.          

In reality, you rarely have the luxury of hand picking the perfect team. Most of the time, you must work with what you’re given. The job of leaders is to build these "gifts" into a cohesive team. Years ago, somebody said to me, "It’s desire—not ability—that leads to success." Look at the people you are given and find the believers. These people are going to make up your core team and also provide you the early win that will bring those who may be less enthusiastic on board.

In these early forming days, don’t worry about structure. Give people real jobs that will get them engaged. When I first captained a rugby team, which has 15 members, I had a core group of about six people—a pack leader, a back leader, the scrum half, a full back and a number eight. These players, plus myself on the wing, were the pivotal positions, and each person had an equal voice in the team strategy. Other people came and went from the team, but over time, we built our critical mass and became a winning team.

More recently, I was faced with a more challenging task as the convener of the working group writing a new International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard. There was a member on the team who sought a radically different outcome, and it caused some problems.

If these problems arise, you could recourse to someone senior who can mitigate them. But also remember the old saying, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." You must know what people seeking different outcomes are thinking and doing, and you also need those who agree with you to help bring your ideas to the table and stay focused on the mission.

Team needs

The way you keep your core team members committed is to give them what they need to do their jobs. When I captained the rugby team, what mattered most to the team was to never play a man short. If we lost a man on Saturday morning, I would break my back to get a replacement to ensure we never played short. That built loyalty and commitment. Always ask yourself what your people most need to get their jobs done.

Recently, I also was tasked with building the ASQ Innovation Interest Group. This team is different from those I’ve led in the past. We are a virtual team and are growing fast—we went from zero members to 150 in six months.

There are the obvious enthusiasts in the group, and as the leader, I try my hardest to ensure they have a meaningful role. There are projects within the project, and I try to ensure they’re led by team members with ability and enthusiasm. Still, the group is made up of volunteers, and people also have day jobs. This means there will be members who volunteer to lead a task or project and are just not able to find the time they thought they could. There are also members who sit on the sidelines simply because they want to be associated with what they see as a success.

This is one of the leader’s toughest tasks. You may need to backfill the role after a discussion with the person involved or step in yourself and quietly cover the task.

Now put these concepts into the context of leading innovation teams. If you are tasked with leading either incremental improvement or radical innovation, you have some unique challenges. Recognize that you will be leading two different teams in the two project phases. They may be made up of largely the same people, but they will behave differently in each phase.  

Creative phase

In the early creative phase of the project, you must allow a high degree of freedom, encourage exploration and allow frequent failure. "Fail early" is the innovator’s mantra. These are counterintuitive behaviors for the established business thinker, and you must ensure you have people who think and behave this way. 

Use the self-assessment tool on the ASQ Innovation Interest Group’s website and ensure you have plenty of creators and connectors in this creative phase.1 If it’s a quality-based project, you will probably have plenty of connectors, but you may be short on creators. Another advantage of using the tool is that it helps people on the team better understand one another’s strengths. 

In the creative phase, you need diversity and disruption. That’s how you get the wild ideas. I used the person on my standards writing team with the different objective to that advantage. This way, we challenged ideas at the later stages of this creative phase. We were writing a completely new standard with no precedents, and challenging ideas forced us to explore widely and deeply.

In these early stages of creativity, you should allow social time. The more analytical people may think this is slacking, but this early socializing is when you build trust, even though you also have diversity and disruption. In these early stages, your goals should be short term, giving you those essential early wins. This may again make analytical team members feel uneasy. There will be those who want you to tell them what the final answer will look like, but you must tell them bluntly that you have no idea because if you did know, you would not be innovating. 

Throughout all of this, you are providing direction, resources and a loose framework as you move forward. Meet frequently—whether it’s formally, informally or virtually. Monitor outcomes using soft metrics at this stage.

At each review, draw out lessons learned from failing early. Your innovative mission in this creative phase is to seek to understand the opportunity, to define the opportunity and to find solutions in conceptual form only.

Inside that mission, there is one aspect that may be difficult for creators and connectors: data collection. Data are a vital deliverable at the end of this divergent and creative phase because it provides the information and knowledge that fuels the convergent execution phase. You need some developers and doers2 in this creative phase because they are the customers of the data, and they will be better skilled at collecting data.

Execution phase

You now reach the point where you reengage with the organization’s senior leaders and strategists. Avoid providing them with the raw data for decision making. Instead, analyze data to get information and knowledge to help your senior leaders make informed decisions. 

You will probably be reengaging more closely with the project sponsor during this time. I encourage you to build that into a strong relationship because you will need their close support in the execution phase. That will be when the politicians and people with vested interests emerge and attempt to derail the project. As Niccolò Machiavelli said, "He who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new."3 Work with your sponsor and identify who has high project influence and high organizational influence. If that person is going to lose something because of your project, it is your sponsor’s job to address that loss.

Decisions must be made at an organizational level about which ideas have the best long-term return on investment, are the most radical and hardest to copy, and which ideas can get to market most quickly. You will probably narrow down two, at most three, choices and now the game changes.

Your tough task as project lead is behavior change. Gone is the loose behavior. The new reality is about being focused and fast. As a team lead, you must monitor this behavior change closely. Some of your creative folks will leave the team, and you will start to engage customers, sales and operations people. Figure 1 (p. 45) illustrates the change from the open-network creative phase to the closed-network execution phase. 

You will probably break your team into task groups addressing different aspects of the project. This is where your traditional project management skills become vital. Look out for iteration—it’s an excuse for failure or poor proof of concept. The good news for the team is that it will have naturally morphed from a dispersed network into a closed or clustered network as people got to know and trust one another. Make sure any new team members are now properly integrated into the team.

Meeting and managing

As success starts to become evident, opportunists may try to join the team. If they have a real contribution, that’s fine, but if they are merely hangers on, be ruthless. After you get more than 20 people, collaboration reduces dramatically and you can get in-fighting or disagreements within the group. Also, look out for late-joining experts who may have egos and opinions that you should manage privately and certainly not in virtual meetings.

Virtual meetings are inevitable and can be stressful for the leader. Recognize they have a much narrower bandwidth than a live meeting, and use them for monitoring progress and as information sessions for the team as a whole. People should walk away from virtual meetings with clear action items. Complex decisions are best made in virtual meetings of six people or less.

Finally, as a team leader, never forget that while your people need private attention and coaching, recognition of their achievements should be in front of their peers and colleagues.

Leading an innovation project is not an easy task. It’s important to understand the team dynamics and the aptitudes of your team members to effectively manage and direct them, and provide the needed resources for the team throughout the innovation process. By doing this, you can lead the way to innovation success.

References and note

  1. The self-assessment tool that can help identify individual roles in the innovation process can be found at
  2. The four innovation aptitudes are creator, connector, developer and doer. Learn more about the roles by taking the self-assessment. 
  3. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532.