Having the right processes and systems in place to manage your innovation programs and portfolio is key. But in the end, it's the people leading and doing the actual work that will make all the difference.

Given the unique dynamics of the role, and the special skills required, it's not easy to find the right people for your innovation teams. As we all know, putting a bunch of people together doesn't make for a high-performing team out of the blue.

Choosing people who naturally are more curious, open, and with a growth mindset already helps build an effective innovation team. Yet it's very far from being enough. As an innovation team leader, you definitely need more ingredients to prepare your team for success and, at the same time, you should be ready to take on all the challenges that inevitably surface at the different stages of your team’s lifecycle.

At our recent Innov8rs Connect on Culture, Talent and Teams, we discussed these topics with Selen Mussi (Specialized Nutrition’s Innovation Pipeline Director at Bacardi),
Layal Nammour Baaklini (Global Disruptive Innovation Managing Director - Next gen Idea Lab Director at Bacardi), and Eleftheria Karyoti (Innovation coach and value proposition designer - Innovation Factory at Rabobank).

Here’s a summary of what we learned.

What Are The Key Ingredients For A Successful Innovation Team?

Even if there is no one-size-fits-all solution, some “ingredients” are key to setting up a team for success right from the start. And the elements that make up a strong innovation team range from selecting the right people to creating an environment where everyone feels free to express their creativity.


In Selen’s opinion, picking the right talent starts with prioritizing diversity in terms of background, gender, age, and culture. And diversity also includes personality types (introverts vs. extroverts).

“People with different backgrounds always bring more, diverse perspectives to the table”.

And organizations must encourage and support diversity. Layal reports that Bacardi has established a program called “Belonging” whose main purpose is to create an environment where everyone can unleash their potential and show their true colors without putting a mask on.

As part of this program, Bacardi also promotes cultural sensitivity training events whenever a multicultural team is formed to explain the different nuances of culture to every single member.


According to Layal, empathy is a must-have ingredient for a successful innovation team. As innovators, we've probably heard this so many times before but, honestly, innovation without empathy is not real innovation. How can we come up with desirable value propositions and solutions for our customers if we don't fully understand what problems they are struggling with?

And so Layal encourages innovation teams to ask, observe, listen generously, and immerse themselves in their customers’ world to unpack and understand the profound insights of those problems. “After all, it's never about what they say or do” – she says – “rather, it's about what they think and feel”.


Layal also suggests adopting a Business Scientist Mindset. In sum, success (from an innovation team point of view) doesn’t come down to being right. Proving and providing evidence that whatever you're doing is actually working is far more noteworthy. Borrowing this concept from the book "Think Again" by Adam Grant, Layal explains that when we start working on something, we inevitably have many unknown elements to deal with. And every experiment ideally takes us a step closer to what we want to learn.

Reliability and clarity

Counting on each other as well as having clarity on the goals, roles, responsibilities, and action plans are two other paramount ingredients. “Being in such a positive context will also help members understand their unique contribution to the overall process and the impact of their job”, adds Selen. And that’s where the need for a psychologically safe environment emerges.

Psychological safety

Eleftheria echoes Selen and remarks how diversity is extremely important, especially in small teams, for people to complement each other. Yet “diversity is not enough. At the end of the day, innovation teams need to operate in a safe space”, she states.

Creating psychological safety means making failures openly discussable- i.e., talking about what went wrong with a project, what happens next, and how to adapt and come back to the marketplace stronger. If we could do all of this, we probably wouldn't call it failure anymore.

The idea here is that no one needs to feel all the pressure of delivering one big project independently. They're all part of a community that is learning, experimenting, and delivering value.

“I like to think of an organization as a community, or better yet, as a beehive where all the bees work together. The hive is a whole; it's the sum of many tiny hexagons. And even if one hexagon fails, the bees are still there together”.

What Are The Main Challenges An Innovation Team Faces?

Selecting the right people is a big first challenge. And so is checking the quality of team members’ work. Clearly, listing all the possible hardships an innovation team might encounter would be nearly impossible.

The concepts of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing (FSNP) can help us describe the four stages of psychological development and group dynamics a team goes through while working on a project. And each phase involves specific challenges that the innovation team leaders want to be aware of to act accordingly:

· Forming: in this first stage, the innovation team comes together to address a problem and propose solutions. Each member is oriented to the project task, and diversity plays a crucial role. Forming a strong, diverse team is essential but can pose new challenges as the innovation project moves on.

· Storming: this is probably the most dangerous phase. Here team leaders establish roles for each member and define the goal and the shared vision. All of this may bring out some negative aspects of group behavior. Promoting a fearless culture and providing psychological safety (as already described in the previous paragraph) can help your team be more engaged and ready to learn from failure.

· Norming: at this stage, team members begin working together effectively and developing mutual trust despite differences. But that’s possible only if each member agrees on the greater importance of the collective dimension than the individual one. Otherwise, you'll have multiple “idea creators” fighting with each other.

· Performing: in the last phase, the team is ready to focus on a shared goal and find ways to solve any problems. The challenge here is to incentivize creative efforts in ways other than (just) financial growth.

Team Canvas And Team Dysfunctions: Two Useful Tools

Eleftheria proposes two useful tools to address the challenges we’ve discussed so far.

The Team Canvas, probably the easiest tool for anyone to use, helps touch upon the most important topics for a team – no matter if it’s a starting team or even later stage team – including vision, roles, responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, rules, rituals, and values.

A more advanced tool she suggests using is inspired by the book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni. In short, team leaders should collect all possible dysfunctions through a survey filled in by members and then set up workshops where the most critical spotted dysfunctions are discussed first in small groups and then in gradually larger groups. The ultimate goal is to touch upon five elements or dysfunctions and find common solutions:

  1. Absence of trust: the fear of being vulnerable prevents the building of trust within the team. Promoting psychological safety, sharing problems, admitting mistakes, and assisting each other can create a solid and successful team free from vulnerability-based issues.
  2. Fear of conflict: trying to preserve an artificial harmony where everything seems to be under control actually stifles productive conflict, new ideas, and different perspectives. And this leads to suboptimal decision-making. The best way to address this second dysfunction is to welcome constructive conflict in your team, encourage the members to speak out, and be open to input and feedback. But again, trust is crucial: productive and constructive conflict can’t occur without trust.
  3. Lack of commitment: this happens when there’s a general lack of clarity and ambiguity, and team members can’t make informed decisions. Avoiding this dysfunction is easy in theory but can be challenging to practice. Aligning your team on common objectives, directions, and priorities is the first step towards a team culture built on trust and healthy conflict.
  4. Avoidance of accountability: holding one another accountable for their behaviors and performance can be frustrating for many. But suppose you’ve already built trust and promoted productive conflict and commitment in your team. In that case, accountability is the natural next step. Implementing the same standard for everyone can encourage members to hold each other accountable for high and low performance.
  5. Inattention to results: pursuing individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success. And if you don’t collectively focus on results, you’re more likely to see poor team performance. But when trust, healthy conflict, commitment, and accountability are solid pillars, teams will likely be more focused on common results and more motivated.

Patrick Lencioni depicts these five dysfunctions as a pyramid where the “Absence of trust” is the base and the “Inattention to results” is the tip. According to the author, the flip side of each are the characteristics that a high-performative team should have:

1. High levels of trust
2. Constructive and productive conflict
3. Deep commitment and engagement with the overall strategy
4. Willingness to hold each other accountable
5. Strong results orientation

Measuring The Success Of An Innovation Team

When it comes to metrics, we all tend to think about KPIs. And that's great because seeing the benefit we’ve created in the market is rewarding. Yet Selen doesn't believe that taking KPIs into account is enough to see or measure a team's success.

Layal thinks measuring the engagement of each team member is a great starting point. Easier said than done, that’s true, but some metrics may come in handy. For instance, retention is an excellent indicator. And the same goes for developing new capabilities.

"Every job has to be regenerative. We must build organizations where employees feel that, like the soil, they're receiving more than is being extracted from them”

Lastly, delivering financial value is paramount, but you shouldn’t look at it as the primary reason behind the innovation process. Instead, it's an outcome that happens because all the other gears function well together.