Building Innovative Teams

Robin Campbell (RA Campbell Consulting Ltd, Carrickfergus, UK)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Article publication date: 21 March 2008



Campbell, R. (2008), "Building Innovative Teams", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 361-363.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The aim of this book is to provide a practical blueprint for building innovative teams. This it achieves in a most comprehensive and detailed way offering a wealth of guidance, methodologies and solutions all grounded in both experience and the literature. This is an impressive book by any standards and I for one have very much appreciated that Harris has chosen to share his methodologies.

There is no doubt that innovation has become a key determinant of competitive advantage. Yes we need analytics, yes we need performance driven processes, yes we need lean organizations but the ability to be able to bring market opportunities and organizational capability in a creative and innovative way remains an essential and yet difficult distinctive competence to emulate. The development of innovative dynamic teams is a crucial consideration for organizations. Harris makes his case clear on the need for such innovation and creativity.

But what does this notion of “innovation” mean? Harris describes what it is for him – it is a move away from the norm with all the risk and stress that follows. What is very helpful with Harris's approach is the acceptance of the risks, increased uncertainty and complexity that flows from such shifts and Harris provides a deep understanding and methodologies not only to manage these difficulties but to harness and use them to advantage. This is not merely an espousal of the benefits of innovation but also the costs and how to manage them to benefits. There are many types of innovation depending on the level of novelty and uncertainty. The most complex is what Harris calls “complex (Q4) systems innovation” which is described as radical category breaking innovation in creating new markets and industries. This is similar to the notion of “double loop learning” where the learning as with the innovation creates a new paradigm with a process that can be counter‐intuitive, non linear, discontinuous and non incremental. The management of such uncertainty flowing from this process, according to Harris, is down to “real world learning and cumulative learning” within innovative teams. He believes that true innovative teams have the capacity to learn at “accelerated, amplified … and even exponential rates”. So how does this happen?

Harris helpfully spends time to help the reader understand the psychology and physiology of the brain and its implications for learned behaviours and human interaction. He argues that when faced with uncertainty and the unpredictable we suffer enormous stress and that our primitive brain as distinct from our rational brain and that increases our flight (running away) or fight (aggression) responses.

So how do we try to ensure that our brain responses can manage the uncertainty without these unhelpful responses? Well Harris proposes what I would call a “wellness” approach of proper eating, stress reduction, regular exercise, limited alcohol intake and so on. This makes perfect sense – avoiding burn out of body and mind, and developing the perception of control over your environment are clear per cursers to innovative thinking and being a effective member of an innovative team.

Creative people according to Harris can generate new ideas but they can wade into the problem with out thoroughly defining the problem in the first place. They are also divergent thinkers that can go on a tangent. Innovative teams therefore must consist of many types of innovative and practical and diverse people.

Harris points out that key to unleashing the power of a diverse high performance team whilst utilizing the creative individuals abilities to the full extent, is paradoxically to create an environment where both high degrees of autonomy and teamwork are present. This is an important insight because often as Nolan is quoted the pro – teamwork bias tends to discount the importance of personal autonomy. This is a core point and often not understood in the field. Harris believes that the key to this is “orientation”. An orientation that he states where individuals can come together on complex tasks that require a variety of skills and knowledge; but just as easily work on solo tasks that require highly specialist skills and focus. He then provides five key approaches to achieving such orientation, such as valuing difference – where all the benefits flow from diversity of the team; goal duality – working towards individual and team goals; mutual accountability – valuing shared accountability; win – win – positive sum for everyone; and finally, common working methods – a set of tools for autonomous teamwork.

Effective teams have a shared mental model and motivation. Harris describes how to develop an innovative team's whole mind and shared mental model. Harris discusses mental models and highlights those basic elements that furnish individuals with basic cognitive archetypes and shared scripts and schemas. He helpfully describes five ways that can begin to transform dominant mental modes in order to allow the complex innovation to take place, but also goes on to describe ways of developing shared mental models. He offers a very helpful process for developing an open exploration of the different issues and getting a new perspective by asking original questions; getting to the “heart of the matter” and the use of the “wheel of reinforcement”. All of these approaches are sound, and practical. It has been my experience that all too often hard‐pressed teams spend little or no time on these crucial aspects of team development. The use of lateral questions is very important as is the use of other innovative thinking approaches of De Bono et al. I liked this section very much. Harris then describes his approach to developing collaborative learning using conceptual thinking techniques. This section is particularly useful because Harris describes the nature of collaborative learning and offers five synergistic processes of creative symbioses – integrating unrelated ideas; creative co‐evolution – of ideas from different sources; create strange loops – building a multidimensional hierarchy of ideas; create accumulation of ideas; and create criticality of ideas. And it is with “collaborative learning” that we see the central paradox of the book:

Increasing the novelty/complexity of an innovation does indeed increase its value, but it also increases uncertainty, risk and chance. Collaborative learning leads to new and unexpected insights. It also leads to unexpected issues. That is, if innovation is more or less a non‐deterministic endeavour, then unexpected blips and issues will emerge. In fact, the more complex a system is, the more capricious and expected the activity of innovation becomes. Paradoxically, however it is the very learning that reduces risk and uncertainty. The faster a team can gain insight into a problem, the faster that problem heads towards a known certainty. But the kind of innovations needed today, the complex systems innovations … require learning beyond knowledge in vastly disparate fields and disciplines and the capacity to unite such learning into a seamless, coherent work whole.

Central to collaborative and rapid team learning is according Harris (quoting Peter Senge) developing a sense of connectedness, working together as part of a system, where each part of the system is affected by the other parts and where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Harris then offers some prescriptions on developing this type of relationship through dialogue development and the use of practice games.

Another central issue is innovative team values where values underpin the essence of a team's meaning, what Harris calls “the vital sum and substance that govern a team's behavior”. He identifies seven of the most important values that an innovative team holds: integrity; trust; forgiveness; mutuality; freedom; respect for the individual and playfulness.

Harris also provides a five part approach to developing and reinforcing innovation team values which are primarily cultural such as stories, rituals and rewards.

Harris highlights the need for high performance goals and metrics in developing innovative teams. He then provides advice on what to target and measure and focus upon. Harris also provides advice on organizing innovative teams and the role of innovative team leadership and the role of control.

The final part of the book deals with building innovative team performance. He discusses the role of the sigmoid curve that is a very powerful concept both in terms of strategy and innovation. Here he shows the positive and negative feedback aspects of team development. Harris argues the need to set up a management infrastructure, an action plan, key strategies for accelerating team performance, monitoring and benchmarking performance development and what he calls developing a team building laboratory. He then gives advice on executing a team‐building programme.

In the final chapter Harris deals with profiling and selecting team members. This is useful because he provides instruments to use in the profiling team members without the reader having to have knowledge of, and operation of other psychometric tests; although I would have been interested in his views on other instruments and their relationship to his approach.

Harris finally includes a positive treasure trove of team building exercises in the appendices some of which I have used myself and found to be both practical and effective.

In conclusion, this book is not easy, it takes work but with that work will come rewards and success. I have read the book three times such is the level of richness and guidance provided, and each time I pick it up I get new insights.

I strongly recommend Building Innovative Teams by Chris Harris.

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