What is an Innovation Team?

The Role of the Team

The role of your team is to conceive, champion, and carefully develop a new approach that has not been tried by your organization before. Real commitment over six to nine months is needed, in an environment that may be full of skepticism, even resistance, as you move forward. The team’s composition and dynamics therefore emerge as among the most important variables and potentially a reliable predictor of success. 

Case Study: The Oakland Museum

In this video profile, watch how the Oakland Museum created a unique cross-constituency team of curators, educators, conservators, writers, and artists to help reshape their art gallery.

Who’s at the Table

We advise you to create an atypical team, not a collection of the usual suspects.  The rationale behind this is to ensure that diverse organizational perspectives are present, unexpected questions get asked, and the culture of the organization is productively disturbed and provoked by outside knowledge and attitudes. Be careful to pick good team players for this work – those inclined to want quick decisions, or prima donnas who are inflexible about ideas, will not prove useful.

We recommend members from the staff and board, from affiliated artists, and from individuals with external perspectives. None of those from within your organization are there to “represent” that constituency, but to serve as organizational investigators and problem solvers. In order to promote traction within the full body of each internal constituency, we recommend at least 2 members from each – a single board member, for instance, can easily become a lone contrary voice at full board meetings, where two board members who have experienced the power of the innovation work can reinforce each other.

An Ideal Innovation Team:

  • about 10 members
  • staff leadership (artistic and executive)
  • at least 2 staff members directly involved in the content area (marketing, finance, audience engagement)
  • at least 2 board members
  • at least 2 outsiders who can bring and external perspective (audience members, members of the School District, high-tech leaders)
  • content experts, who join the team at crucial moments to lend expertise, should be considered early on and through the entire process

Group Size

Meredith Belbin, a leading researcher on team-roles and team performance, has found that unfacilitated teams are most effective if they number 5 – 7 members. For groups as large as the one we describe, a facilitator plays a vital role in fostering effective team work and helping ensure that the team does not devolve into what Belbin calls “group behavior.”  Clashes of role preference, and problems of coordination and motivation, become increasingly common in larger teams.

Belbin’s 9 Team Roles

Belbin’s work uncovered nine archetypal team-roles, all of which have essential parts to play in successful team work over time. Here is a summary of Belbin’s team roles. We encourage you to bring together a team whose members’ role preferences, in the aggregate (and as far as you can ascertain them), are likely to cover as many as possible of the following characteristics.

Thinking roles:

  • Plant: A creative ideas person who typically looks at the big picture and/or comes up with new approaches
  • Monitor Evaluator: A person of objective outlook who weighs potential courses of action carefully and strategically
  • Specialist: A technical type who will tend to focus narrowly but knows his or her field in uncommon

Social roles:

  • Coordinator: A facilitative type who is good at getting the best out of all team members rather than advancing his or her own agenda
  • Resource Investigator: An explorer who thrives on picking up new ideas and making contacts outside the team
  • Team Worker: A person who naturally fosters team spirit and supports team goodwill

Action roles

  • Shaper: A person who likes to direct the action and thrives on pressure
  • Implementer: Someone who excels at turning proposals into action plans and systems
  • Completer – Finisher: A person who pays a lot of attention to detail and quality control, and who gets things done

Download Team Role Summary Descriptions (PDF)

Not all these roles are of equal importance at all stages of an innovation project, which typically needs to focus initially on the conceptual – on generating and assessing ideas, and researching possibilities – before it turns to prototyping and implementation. But covering all these roles across the team will give you the flexibility to tackle all the project’s developmental stages.

Being explicit about team roles, and which need to predominate when, will enable team members to vary their contributions thoughtfully and purposefully as the project moves forward.

Learn more – Belbin’s Team Role Theory. 

Criteria for Team Membership

Belbin highlights two principal criteria for team membership:

Eligibility refers to the past experience and qualifications of team candidates:

  • do they have track records that align with the content of the work to be done?
  • Are they likely to bring suitable skills to the table?

Suitability refers to the future potential of team candidates:

  • are they likely to be a good fit in the team?
  • Do they have role preferences and strengths that complement those of other team members?

Although testing for suitability has only recently begun to inform organizational recruitment procedures, Belbin’s findings suggest it is more important than eligibility in relation to subsequent team performance and stickability.

Balancing Team-Role Preferences

A well-constructed Innovation Team is one in which considerations of suitability among prospective members lead to a good balance among team-role preferences, with all the important bases covered, and no yawning gaps.

Every individual exhibits a particular balance of team-role preferences that inform the approach he or she takes to project work, the choices of task he or she will gravitate toward, and what he or she will find rewarding or a slog. A good mix of individuals with varied preferences will do much to ensure a well-composed team that is able to perform at a high level through all the different stages of the project, and not get stuck or derailed. Assembling a team whose team-role preferences are known and broadly complementary is therefore a vital part of success in an innovation process.

Leadership Support

Whether or not your staff and board leaders are actually on the Team, it’s important that the innovation project has strong support in principle from your leading opinion-formers and decision-makers. Without this “permission” to operate, Innovation Teams can get cut off at the pass (their work, after all, is in part to challenge and disrupt the normal flow of things), and find themselves starved of resources and time.

Learn more – 10 Behaviors Typical of Highly Innovative Leaders

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.