June 22

Innovation is a team sport

At OUTCOME, we believe innovation is a system game, meaning it’s a team sport. The challenge is that many organisations have lost sight of the true definition of a team.

As defined by Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management, “a team is a group of people who are interdependent with respect to information, resources, knowledge and skills and who seek to combine their efforts to achieve a common goal”. [1]

Let’s also differentiate between a department or group inside an organisation, as a group does not necessarily constitute a team. Teams typically have members with complementary skills [2] and generate synergy [3] through a coordinated effort, allowing each member to maximise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.

Naresh Jain (2009) claims:

“Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realise their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations”. [4] 

Now, doesn’t that start to sound like an environment where innovation might be possible?

Correcting the false narratives

The return your company expects from innovation shouldn’t be confined to the R&D department or an innovation lab or, indeed, be the job of a single team. Yet, in many organisations, it is still somewhat of an elitist game because innovation and how to contribute haven’t been democratised across the organisation. Because of this, most people in organisations don’t think of themselves as innovators. It is coupled with the fact that in many organisations, we still see leaders and managers discouraging the actions that lead to innovation in favour of risk-mitigating procedures and ‘ways of working’ that are part of the current, outdated system.

In reality, great organisations don’t depend on a small number of specifically chosen or trained people to deliver innovation. Instead, they create a culture for innovation. However, one of the most powerful false narratives about innovation culture is “innovation is everyone’s job” – No, it’s not! You CAN’T contractually make someone innovate, and it’s simply ridiculous to expect or even demand that as part of someone’s job description. Now, ‘contributing’ to the innovation agenda is different. You CAN build actions and behaviours into ways of working that can be observed, measured, recognised and rewarded. That doesn’t necessitate an individual becoming an innovator, but it is about them demonstrably helping further the pursuit of innovation as a team member.

We believe that any company can drive innovation-led growth, independent of size or industry, as long as it builds the right level of capabilities & culture to allow everyone to contribute to the innovation agenda, and it’s the job of leaders to create the right environment for that to happen. 

The middle isn’t frozen; it’s just not enabled

Plenty of empirical evidence points to the conclusion that top-down or bottom-up approaches to change are false narratives. Surveys and research from around the world consistently indicate that a top-down, hierarchical culture is the biggest obstacle to innovation. So, although it’s the job of leaders to build the right environment for innovation to flourish, innovation-led change needs to occur where most of the organisational mass is in the middle. In the absence of an enabled middle management layer, the pursuit of innovation will be, at best, an experience of wishful thinking for executives and an exercise in frustration for the rest of the organisation. It will perpetuate the perception that progress is stifled because the middle is frozen!

Engaging the middle management level is critical to effective transformation and day-to-day performance. These efforts only succeed if the organisation’s middle is engaged with the innovation agenda. When we work with clients on this, we use particular language to differentiate the role of leaders and managers in pursuing innovation. In contrast, the part of leaders is to ‘OWN’ the innovation agenda, to put everything in place that innovation requires. The role of managers is to ‘DRIVE’ the innovation agenda, to use everything that’s been put in place to bring innovation alive on a day-to-day basis. If you’ve flipped the script on the other false narrative that innovation is everyone’s job, you can enable every other employee to ‘CONTRIBUTE’ to the innovation agenda. It’s an approach we call Own-Drive-Contribute, or ODC for short.

Disrupt or die thinking doesn’t help

The typical approach to defining different levels of innovation tends to polarise things for most employees. With the right-hand side of the scale firmly rooted in the phrase ‘disrupt or die’ means, most people instantly jump to extensive, complex, far-out solutions. Thus they self-deselect from the conversation because they can’t contribute to ideas at that scale. Now, as part of a diverse team, is it true that they couldn’t contribute? Or is it more likely that they’ve been conditioned by the outdated system the company runs by to pull away from anything off the well-trodden path?

In that scenario, which is common in many organisations, people then slide to the far left of the innovation scale as they can more easily relate to ‘continuous improvement’ or incremental innovation as something they can contribute to.

The challenge is that activity in this space doesn’t shift the needle enough, given the world we’re all now forced to compete in. It’s still necessary but needs a companion, and we believe that companion sits between incremental and disruptive innovation. It’s a focus on the customer to complement the internal focus of incremental. It focuses on what needs to happen to drive differentiation and solve real customer problems. We often refer to it as ‘differentiated innovation’.

So now we’re unpacking alternative ways for people to position innovation. We’re opening up new pathways for people with more to give than incremental but being radical was just too much of a stretch. Combine that with increasing the areas for innovation, i.e. it’s not just about technology but about processes, experiences, products, services, business models, and ways of working. You now have a matrix where anyone in an organisation can find somewhere to contribute.

In demystifying the often overcomplicated conversations around innovation, you democratise it and open up contributions to the innovation agenda across an organisation. That’s how you make innovation a team sport and create an organisation capable of shaping the future.


[1] Thompson, Leigh (2008). Making the team : a guide for managers (3rd ed.). Pearson/Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780131861350.

[2] Compare: Melsa, James L. (2009). “7: Total Quality Management”. In Sage, Andrew P.; Rouse, William B. (eds.). Handbook of Systems Engineering and Management. Wiley series in systems engineering and management (2 ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 347. ISBN 9780470083536. Teams must develop the right mix of skills, that is, each of the complementary skills necessary to do the team’s job.

[3] Beatty, Carol A.; Barker Scott, Brenda (2004). “3: Ream Problem Solving for Pros”. Building Smart Teams: A Roadmap to High Performance. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE. p. 65. ISBN 9780761929567. Synergy occurs when the team’s combined output is greater than the sum of the individual inputs. Synergy creates an excess of resources.

[4] Jain, Naresh (2009). “Run marathons, not sprints”. In Davis, Barbee (ed.). 97 Things Every Project Manager Should Know: Collective Wisdom from the Experts. O’Reilly Media, Inc. p. 96. ISBN 9781449379568. Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realise their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.


Innovation, Innovation Leadership, Innovation Management

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