3 Characteristics of Killer Innovators

Is the ‘W’ the next ‘T’?

In building a start-up or innovation team, there are several roles or skill sets to cover and finding those capabilities is just of the challenge. For an innovation team, you need people that can collaborate, think laterally, and be intrinsically motivated to get the job done.

1. Look for ‘W’ Team Members

A good team member is a ‘T’ shape. They have deep expertise in one area, can ‘flex’ to fill in roles as needed, have a breath of experience in adjacent fields, and collaborate well with others. A great team member is a ‘W’ shape with deep expertise in one critical skill set (hipster, hacker, hustler, or hound), deep expertise in a complementing area or industry, and is a team player. Ideally, the complementing area of expertise is an additional critical skill set, knowledge of an analogous industry, or experience as the customer you are trying to serve.

IDEO’s Bill Moggridge, best known for the design of the first laptop computer, and CEO Tim Brown have both stressed the importance of T-shaped individuals with depth in one area and breath of experience. The importance of developing breath is that a team member can demonstrate empathy for other team members’ perspective, collaborate, and build off their ideas to develop a breakthrough solution.

2. Search for Lateral Thinkers

Adversely, you want to be careful that each team member does not have too much experience in one area that limits their ability to think laterally. Lateral Thinking, as Edward De Bono puts it, is the ability to disrupt the apparent sequence of activities and develop ideas and solutions in alternative ways. In other words, its the ability of an individual to go outside of the standard process and adapt ideas or apply learnings from other areas to the challenge at hand. For example, your challenge may be to develop capabilities for a team to work for an extended period of time in Antarctica. In this scenario, having an astronaut or engineer that was part of a space program on the team may gleam parallel insights for developing sustainable remote living situations.

A consultant from !What If? explained this concept best in the analogy of ‘the mountain’. Imagine your mind is a mountain and the experience and knowledge you accumulate is like rain coming down on one side of the mountain. Over time, if you are not shifting where you are getting the ‘rain’ you develop deep ‘channels’ of thought and it is hard to switch your frame of reference and see from alternative perspectives. Exercising your ability to think laterally helps you adapt and utilize multiple areas of your experience to solve problems in creative ways.

3. Look for a Personal Connection to Your Mission

Investors and business leaders look for team members who are passionate about the project or subject matter they are working on. Passion, although hard to measure, is an effect of a person who is intrinsically motivated. So, in other words, instead of looking for passion, look to understand why they are intrinsically motivated to work on this specific endeavor.

Research in psychology shows that in order for a person to be creative, they need to be intrinsically motivated. Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose are the three areas that research shows positively impact intrinsic motivation and in turn, enhance creativity. When considering team members, is important to ask: Is this person motivated because they are developing a deeper sense of mastery in their expertise or a new expertise? Do they own a role and have the freedom (autonomy) to make decisions? Do they feel a clear sense of purpose linked to the mission of the organization?

The first two questions are easier to gauge, but understanding the sense of purpose is more difficult. A way to do this is to identify the personal experience and connection to the problem the endeavor is trying to solve. Identifying a person who is personally motivated to solve the problem at hand and connects with the purpose of the project is the best scenario. As roles change and levels of autonomy waver, especially in small teams and start-ups, the sense of purpose will keep a team member ‘passionate’ during those times of transition.

It may not be possible to find someone who is intrinsically motivated in all three areas, but understanding why someone is motivated to join the team and finding the right match is key. In a small innovation team, where it is important for every person to be creative, passion through purpose is invaluable.

Recap: Finding the right skills is not enough. You need team players that can think laterally and are personally connected to the mission… and if they have multiple area of expertise, even better.

Written by Sergio Marrero

Edited by Jazmin Cabeza

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