Who do you want on this innovation team?

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

Sitting across from a senior business leader who has just agreed to set up a cross functional team to explore a new idea, the question comes; who do we want on the team?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Fundamentally, I know I need a team who can talk to and empathise with customers, design solutions, learn and launch. But what my sponsor wants to hear is a more typical roll call, i.e. someone from Marketing, someone from Commercial, someone from Digital etc.

The success of innovation projects is nearly always down to the make-up of the team and its important that diversity in all its forms including gender, age, nationality, religion are included. We are often designing products for diverse audiences so must remove our own personal biases. A diverse team allows creativity to thrive through the building of a collective intelligence. But we are often drawn to people who think like us. This podcast with Matthew Syed, gives some great examples from across history where building teams which lacked diversity have been disastrous.

I’ve worked with some brilliant teams and they’ve often included some of the individuals below but you won’t find them on the org chart.

The Fixer/Networker – this is the person who knows people, who know other people. They’ll understand how the business works and will be able to work the back channels and pull in favours to get stuff done. For sure they will be on first name terms with the CEO but also the security guards and canteen staff.

The Graduate or New Starter – I love having this person on my team because I know they will work super hard and are keen to learn and impress. But I also know they will think differently to the rest of the business and bring a fresh external perspective.

The Side Hustler/Slashie – look for people who are running a side business as well as the day job. Not only do these people work hard, they also have a built-in sense of how to make money. This entrepreneurial spirit can manifest itself in many ways. I’ve had people in my teams who run an Airbnb, make and sell ceramics on Etsy, buy and sell vinyl on eBay or rent out properties to students.

The Customer Champion – this is the person in your business who has daily contact with your customer, who understands and cares the most and often goes the extra mile. They are often found in your contact centre, out on your vans or maybe manning your social media channels. I know when I have found the right person as they are very often impossible to remove from their day jobs.

The Deliverer – this is a person with a laser focus on delivery and will do whatever it takes to get things done. Sometimes, but not always they are new to the business and are not aware of internal politics or territories which can hinder progress when you are trying to work at pace in complex environments.

The Risk Taker/Maverick – sometimes when you are building a team you may get asked to take someone who is a risk, maybe they are on an exit path, maybe they are currently without portfolio, maybe they just think so differently that nobody really knows what to do with them. I often take these people but will set a strict review point after two weeks where we will determine if they are adding value. Honestly, sometimes it works out and sometimes it just doesn’t and the team is better off without them.

Finally, a couple of tools to get you started when building a cross functional team from scratch:

Team Canvas – a great tool to align around your purpose and to decide how you are going to work together. I like to use it to identify what people would like to get

personally out of the process, e.g. pitching opportunities, network building or upskilling.

Quick Myers & Briggs Tool – although I do have some reservations about personality tests and putting people in boxes, this is a quick tool which can provide some good stimulus for discussion when setting up new teams.

I'd love to hear about other peoples experiences of building cross functional innovation teams so please get in touch at


Recent Posts

See All