Published on
Nov 22, 2020

Innovation requires a team. Using a football analogy, the quarterback cannot win the game alone. Even setting aside the obvious need for a defense to keep the other team from scoring, the quarterback must be protected by the offensive linemen, and he must have the help of receivers and running backs to move the ball to the goal line. Many children who love the game of football dream of being a quarterback, but as they grow and play the sport, their talents, skills, abilities, and, yes, size might determine that playing a different position is the best way for them to contribute to the team. Innovation follows the same paradigm. We all have different skills, preferences and natural tendencies that make us better suited for different phases of the innovation process. The organizations that know how to employ the different talents of their people can maximize their innovative efforts.

Innovation has been talked about so much recently that the word is beginning to lose meaning or is becoming a “catch all” for the process of improvement of any challenge we face.  Beginning with first principles, a quick examination of what innovation is and how it happens is appropriate. Creativity is the generation of new ideas or new interpretations either in the artistic sense or as potential solutions to a problem or challenge. Innovation is the application of those ideas to generate actionable solutions to problems or challenges. Examining the process of innovation and utilization of innovators can be extremely complex, just like understanding the entire playbook of an NFL team. One thing is certain, innovation starts with people. Bob Rosenfeld, CEO of Idea Connection Systems, Inc.® (ICS) - a management consulting firm that is leveraging individual potential to bring innovation to the world - says, “Organizations don’t innovate, people do.” As in the example of our football team, it takes all kinds of people.

In the ICS model of innovation, people’s innovation preferences fall into three categories.

  1. The first category is the builders or linemen in our football analogy. Not only are they efficient and stable, they’re able to stay focused on the task at hand regardless of the chaos going on around them.
  2. The second category is the pioneers who are fewer in number (like quarterbacks) and often seen as unconventional and spontaneous, but they can constantly create or generate new possibilities.
  3. The third category is the largest percentage of people: the connectors. They are the receivers of ideas, the players that can take the ball (i.e. an idea) and make adjustments that move the ball forward. They are adaptable, practical and agile and can interpret the pioneer’s often “half baked” ideas into enough context for the builders to finish the process of innovation.

Although our discussion has focused on the football team analogy, innovation can also happen in teams of two. History provides us with two exceptionally good examples of innovating pairs who were also brothers, and who had different mindsets and took quite different approaches. The first pair was Orville and Wilbur Wright. While much has been written about their innovations, how they innovated is a rather under-discussed topic. They had a unique way of discussion and argumentation. They would take opposing sides of an issue or problem, argue their perspectives and then switch sides and argue the other way. This mental agility helped them to think through all facets of potential solutions and learn from failures. The second pair, Walt and Roy Disney, took yet another approach. Staying more in their respective roles, Walt was the generator of ideas and artistic interpretation while Roy was more grounded in implementation of Walt’s ideas and business decisions. Failure and overcoming obstacles also played a role in the Disney story, as it does in many stories of innovation. Embracing failure, learning from it and using it as a badge of courage is a hallmark of innovation.

How do we take these reflections on innovation and make them work for our organizations? We can do so by focusing on a few key concepts in the process of innovation:

Inclusion. Everyone has a role in innovation. Taking the Innovation Strengths Preference Indicator® (ISPI) - a proven instrument that engages people through their innovation preferences which has been used in industry and government to form high performing teams for technology and workforce development - can help leaders and managers understand the innovation preferences of the people on their team. When team members share those preferences, it increases positive attitudes about everyone’s strengths and work habits.

Understanding. Seek to understand your role in innovation and build on your skills and preferences. Taking the ISPI and understanding your role and preferences can help to explain personal reactions to situations faced in our day to day encounters. Greater levels of understanding ourselves leads to higher levels of employee engagement and collaboration.

Appreciation. Make sure your leaders understand and appreciate the different types of innovation and different types of innovators.  Understanding the innovation preferences of everyone in an organization can provide a unique opportunity to match the type of innovation you seek (evolutionary, expansionary, revolutionary) with the people who possess the strengths to make those efforts a success. Pack your team with pioneers if you are looking for big, bold ideas. Use your connectors to interpret out-of-the-box ideas from the pioneers into actionable programs. Finally, engage your builders in what they excel at; making plans into more concrete steps that produce results. 

Resilience. Innovation almost always involves failure, so embrace it. One of the most important aspects of innovation is embracing failures as learning opportunities. Build a culture of learning by allowing some riskier projects to move forward and nurturing a culture that accepts non-attainment of the original goal as a key learning opportunity instead of a failure.

Now that we understand that innovation is a team sport – let’s get out there and play! Contact us to find out how you can engage the human dynamics of innovation, featuring the ISPI to help you cross the innovation goal line!