You’re probably putting the wrong people in your innovation team

Though there is no magical formula, there are 3 important biases to overcome when you are looking for the right people for your innovation team: and they have to do...

calendar icon
December 11, 2018
New York

Time and time again people come up to me to ask who they should put in their innovation teams. Ok, that’s a lie. People rarely approach me, and if they do, it’s to ask directions to places I know of, but can rarely locate. However. I have had numerous talks with industry experts who have advised countless companies about the formation of their innovation teams. For many, the struggle is real. So I thought I’d share the insights from some of my most recent conversations on the matter.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: forget that there is 1 perfect profile that you can just pluck off the streets and put in your innovation team for immediate and stellar success. The right person depends on your company, your culture, your strategy, your structure, the projects they’d have to do and even the type of innovation you want to invest in. Do you want incremental innovation? Disruptive innovation? Business Model innovation? You’ll have to get all of this out of the way, before you’ll start selecting the right profiles.

Image via

Now, instead of trying to tell you who you should exactly put in your innovation team (which is basically impossible), I’ll be debunking some hardcore myths on the topic.

Myth #1: Find the creative ones

Innovation does not equal creativity. If you only put creatives in your innovation team, you’ll probably just be creating an extremely cool cemetery of excellent ideas. No offense to all the creatives in this world (You are all beautiful and I respect you like no one has ever respected you before!), but they tend to excel at ideation and fighting the status quo while not necessarily be great at pushing new ideas through to the rest of organization.

I got this insight from my interview with Frederik Anseel, which you can (and really should read here). Frederik told me that creatives, for instance, tend not to be the best ‘idea champions’. The reason is that they are usually highly networked and moving between different ecosystems which allows them to look at situations from different perspectives and to recombine existing ideas into new ones. Now, this continuous wandering between peripheries also means that they are often less strongly embedded within the system of their own company, which is necessary if you want to champion a new idea. And if no one champions an idea, however great, chances are it will die an untimely death.

In other words: for each different phase of innovation, you’ll need different skills and different profiles: idea makers, idea champions, implementers, project managers, etc. Innovation is never about one ‘perfect’ person, or even about one group of creatives.

Myth #2: Find the best and brightest

No, this does not mean you need stupid people in your innovation team. (Can you even say “stupid” in these politically correct times? Or is it “intellectually challenged”? Moving on.) Bear with me. A certain type of – very rare – profile that’s a good fit for an innovation team is that of what Philip Tetlock calls the superforecaster.

Research by Tetlock and his team pointed out that superforecasters are better than so called experts at predicting the future. That’s because, rather than asses a situation from their own knowledge and perspective - which is what most people do - they focus on what they do not know. They excel at finding the “known unknowns” and are very good at estimating the “unknown unknowns”. Superforecasters are eager to learn, extremely critical and great at estimating the plausibility of information. They are able to merge all of their gathered data together in a prediction, in an almost algorithmic, mathematical manner. But what struck me most, was that Frederik Anseel (who introduced me to te concept) told me that they would not necessarily always be the most intelligent people inside your company. The reason is simple, really: smart people are biased about their own talents and knowledge and therefore more heavily invested in their own viewpoints.

This also reminded me of Jack Ma who once stated that you should not hire the best people, but the right people. Granted, he did not talk about innovation teams in specific, but it just reminded me about how biased most companies are towards high profile people with sparkly Ivy league diploma’s.

Myth #3: Find the experienced ones

Corporates who invest heavily in innovation, are often biased towards hiring experienced people. That’s because they want to diminish the risk of innovation fails: “If they succeeded before, they’ll be more likely to do so again”. But, to quote Heather McGowan (from another interview worth reading): “When we went to the moon, we couldn't hire an experienced moonwalker. We couldn't hire anybody experienced in any of the things we were trying to do.” Certainly when it comes to radical and business model innovation, which are about launching things that have never been tried and tested before. This means that experience is a lot less useful, and can even block someone’s open mindedness.

Peter Hinssen goes even further: according to him, the people in your organization who don't know what they're doing – ‘The Ignorants’, as he calls them – are absolutely crucial for the future of your company. Startups have 99% of this type of people around, as they are launching something from zero to one that has never been done before. Corporates, on the other hand, are filled with people who are very experienced at scale, growth and adding solidity: people who are very good at running a machine, not at building it. Don’t put these people in your innovation team, as they’ll smother all the ideas that aren’t efficient (innovation projects are never efficient at first). Find the people who don’t know what they are doing.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
See author page
Join us on our next experience
calendar icon
Get front row access to the latest scoop and new upcoming experiences, bundled into a monthly newsletter
You may opt-out any time. 
Read the .
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
calendar icon
December 11, 2018
New York