How to build your company’s core innovation machine

An insight into the team dynamics that will boost your company’s growth and innovation in a sustainable way, and how to get there

Look closely at the core enablers that allow a company to be agile, adapting to change and being ahead of the curve. The more I did that, the more I understood the hidden gem that is the cornerstone of this drive: people, teams and their interactions. If you want to develop a dynamic organisational structure, to build a fast growing startup, or keep innovating in a big corporation, you need to guarantee that its main drivers are well embedded in the people you work with.

Achieving great dynamics and teaming up within an agile structure can yield powerful results that will push your company forward and give you a great competitive advantage: at Uniplaces we’ve been able to develop what I consider an ideal team structure built to keep our company moving fast.

Within our 130+ team, a group of 5 of us has developed the right ingredients to create a flexible team in which we have reached the right balance between fostering elasticity and avoiding plasticity.

Elasticity — the physical property of something returning to its original shape after being deformed by an external force — allows for ideas to bounce back and forth and for strong experimentation to happen, while preventing Plasticity — the property of staying in that deformed shape in a non-reversible manner once external forces seize to exert tension — avoids the work breaking into chaos and losing the so much needed focus.

For this elasticity-plasticity duality to be in place it is crucial that each one of us 1) presents distinct leadership traits, 2) is able to act as a non-leader, and 3) brings strong team membership traits and dynamics that allow the machine to be well oiled.

How can we get there? Let’s break down the process of developing a company’s core innovation machine:

Embrace Leaderfulness

Acting as a leader in a group setting is crucial not only to make sure things get moving, but also that they start in the right direction (and only move away from the initial plan if needed).

At Uniplaces, when one of us suggests an idea or starts a test, the problem framing is influenced, a direction for a potential solution is proposed and individual Aesthetics will implicitly be embedded in the idea genesis and later into what is being developed.

In our team, we can suspect that Júlio will suggest an idea that puts our business model in some sort of stress test or that Albuquerque will want to bypass Operations completely with a new product feature. I will try to change the scope of a given team and see if results are impactful enough to change its structure entirely, Ascensão will aim to maximise our marketplace matching efforts with a new algorithmic approach, while Lara will want to test changes in specific parts of the conversion funnel.

This allows one of us to provide a challenging scope to the team at a given moment, building the set in which we are working, acting also as an Emergency Anchor during our brainstorming processes or work sessions which we can use as a reference: you’ll often hear one of us saying “Sounds good, but let’s keep that for another session” or “That’s problem X which we are already trying to address in Y, let’s focus on Z”.

The presence of these Aesthetics and an Emergency Anchor are key to prevent plasticity as they will make a group come back to base when it’s most needed. Before setting the tone for exploration and uncertainty that fuel innovation efforts, members have the important role of framing the discussion, and suggest how should a certain challenge be tackled.

Embrace Leaderlessness

On the other hand, it is interesting to see that all of us are able to cease being a leader at any given moment without a second thought and, once a topic is out on the table, we bounce back and forth with equally weighted ideas. We all go with the team, no idea owner anymore. This brings more elasticity to our discussions and we often don’t recall who contributed with what during a session, clearly assuming the outcome as a team effort. At the same time, there is a crucial implicit background shared amongst the entire team that prevents plasticity and maintains everyone aligned at the same level without the need of explicit signs, which I like to call a Common Agreement.

In this way, you can develop a useful set-up where high levels of risk tolerance and security are present, allowing judgements to be set apart, while avoiding it to be just an unknown exploration by defining the scope of the work.


Set the tone with strong Team Membership traits

Besides bouncing between leader and non-leader roles so smoothly, there is something more that is allowing us to work so well as a team. I believe there are 3 structural conditions that need to be in place for Team Membership to function in a healthy way:

1. Master Individual Competence

Building a company from scratch and growing your startup 10x across time has definitely a lot more to do with hard work, enhancing skills and gathering knowledge than anything else.

The five of us come from different backgrounds and have performed a very wide range of roles at Uniplaces — at the moment we split ourselves as 2 Product Managers in the Product team, 1 Data Scientist in the Engineering team and 2 Business Operations Managers. In each of these roles we aimed at consistently delivering and adding value to the company, pushing to master the core competencies needed to execute our daily job. We all share a willingness to learn and believe that, if we don’t know something, we’re able to master it fast.

If you make sure there are no blockers for success by lack of knowledge or skills by surrounding yourself with people that share a growth mindset, this will allow your team to assume the basics are present by default and build from there. This leaves room for more interesting and deeper discussions about your business model or current challenges, thus enabling interactions to be more elastic and exploratory.

2. Develop a shared skill set

Besides having a specific set of skills that is relevant to one’s core role, it is important to have some level of common knowledge that will make the team function more consistently. This allows shifting roles on the spot (which makes you go faster) and bring complementary inputs to the ideas being discussed, fostering team elasticity. In fact, I see that in our case some level of overlapping can be healthy once continuity of work can be achieved if one of us needs to focus on some other task or narrow down efforts on a specific topic of a project in hand.

At Uniplaces, we all share a highly data-driven frame of mind and we know that at least one of us will always be testing and analysing what was implemented or discussed. Sharing the Excel, SQL or Google Analytics skills needed to look at the results of what we’re implementing, for example, allows us to often change the responsibility of analysing the results of our initiatives depending on each one’s availability, while keeping projects moving.

Additionally, all of us know how important great communication skills are (I would argue this is core for any role in any company). We’re able to expose and develop our ideas to each other as a group smoothly and effectively, while also articulating our thoughts and arguments for a new project to important stakeholders or the leadership team, and even presenting the results achieved in a test in a compelling way that fosters buy-in from stakeholders and fuels the next project.

3. Balance a Micro and a Macro Vision

If you don’t want to run the risk of setting yourself for failure by going off the road, it is key to be able to fully embrace a given topic, while not losing sight of the overall context of where you should frame your work. To prevent plasticity it is just as important to have a micro vision to go into detail on a specific problem (operational processes, product features, customer experience impact or reporting needs), while having a macro vision of where you want to go — and perhaps more importantly of where you don’t want to go . This becomes crucial to prevent too much experimenting leading to unstructured chaos.

Over time we were able to achieve this in a number of ways:

  • As a cross-functional team, we naturally cluster different backgrounds and company’s core focuses. By being forced to put many parts of the business together and having them on our minds constantly, we bring a deep level of empathy towards our users in every single discussion — being it externally (landlords and students) or internally. This is just what we need to fully embrace one stakeholder’s problem and dive into it [micro vision], while not losing sight of what are the jobs to be done and its impact in other areas of the company [macro vision].
  • We love meetings in ‘live data mode’ where SQL queries and correlations are pulled right on the spot to make (and especially break) an assumption. This brings a strong added value: we can get fast data points to frame a problem, put it into perspective and quickly eliminate any availability heuristic or confirmation bias that could set us to explore unwanted paths and make sure we allocate our energy on the right problems [macro vision].
  • Learning from our own mistakes, we have come to identify very quickly when are we creating more complexity into our product or processes vs. generating a scalable solution. We might be fully embraced solving the problem of how to convey more trust to a student choosing a home entirely online, or discussing how can we get more accurate listing availability data from our landlords (if you have marketplace experience you know this pain) [micro vision], but we try not to move away from our core problem or to transform what could be a test or feature into an entirely new product (remember the role of the emergency anchor?) [macro vision].

How to build the setting for outstanding Team Dynamics

Alright, we’ve nailed the basics of a flexible team structure and we’re set to success, right? The answer is no: it is important but surely not enough.

You might have these team membership traits present, but nothing special will ever develop if great team dynamics are not a reality. Here’s what I observed within our group that I think helps a team set apart from many others:

  1. Foster an environment of Openness and Acceptance

Each one of us has a natural tendency to dive deeply into a collective creative process and is willing to give away any leadership traits for the sake of the team. At core, we are all active listeners and we create space for others to speak up and share their own thoughts. We are what Design Thinking coins as ‘yes, and’ type of people: we build on top of other’s ideas instead of blocking innovative and disruptive thoughts to begin with. This proves to be a main enabler of elasticity that leads to greater experimentation and reduces risk aversion, a dynamic I’ve identified as key to function as a team.

2. Nurture Trust Presence

I’ve noticed that the subtleties explained above only became a common trait once great levels of trust were developed between all of us. Trust becomes the invisible engine of it all, the main setting stone from which everything else is built and that is responsible for great levels of team elasticity.

Besides the obvious need for time, trust is also matured by having us backing up each other on our daily tasks, tapping the holes or shifting roles when needed, delivering consistently as a group and sharing the same vision for what is to be accomplished.

A crucial detail is that we not only genuinely like what we do, but we also enjoy working and spending time with each other. Thus, we end up developing many of our ideas during informal situations such as dinners or in long discussions about our business challenges at night after a board game session. This allows for many different settings to inspire new ideas that can be somehow related to what we do and then be added to the whole ongoing work.

Flexible team structure model with the right Leaderfulness, Leadernessness and Team Membership and Dynamics elements that enable elasticity or prevent plasticity

Nurturing the right organisation enablers for these dynamics to be in place is crucial and ideally start at the highest levels of the company. Fostering leadership support for this type of cross-team groups — as much a formality this might sound like — plays an important role: it means that people have an incentive to allocate time to work together, even if outside their daily core team responsibilities. Having this sponsorship for such projects has an interesting impact since it increases the team’s credibility throughout the company and ends up generating a self-fulfilling prophecy: when people believe they can come up with innovative ways to solve business challenges and have an incentive to do it, they actually do.

As a company, you’ll also need to be comfortable with failure and develop a testing culture from which you can constantly learn: there’s nothing wrong with failing if you do it fast, cheap and with great learnings.

Hiring for trust will then be your ultimate vehicle for innovation: if you are aiming to build a team that effectively works, look out for people that not only bring the technical skills but also can naturally develop a high degree of empathy right from the beginning, showing personality traits of a constructive (‘yes, and’) person.

These are my thoughts on how we set ourselves to work as a team fostering innovation and growth at Uniplaces. A small group of individuals with exceptional team traits and from diverse areas of the company working in company-wide initiatives can bring many pieces of a business together, resulting in cooperation dynamics that the company might lack overall, hence spilling over culturally across the organisation.

Hopefully this can be applied to your own team too, and help you build and foster your company’s backbone innovation engine.

Feel free to reach me at franciscocarvalhoaraujo@gmail.com or here with feedback, comments or to grab a coffee!


Note: Some of the ideas and the model shown above were initially developed in 2013 in my master thesis ‘Leading Teaming: evidence from Jazz’, which I am happy to share if you’re interested in exploring more