Think of a time you were on a team that accomplished something special and out-of-the-ordinary.

For younger readers, this may have been a sports team or a team assembled for an after-school club. More seasoned readers have hopefully been able to find team magic in the workplace–perhaps a team brought together to accomplish a unique task, or a team that delivered exceptional results in a high-stress environment. 

For me, what immediately comes to mind is a cross-functional team I was part of in 2005. Our bank was embarking on a large-scale administrative system conversion in which all of our customer accounts were being transferred to a new system. All innovation projects had been halted. All employees were tasked with managing, monitoring, testing, and responding to the conversion. As the leader of one of the most profitable product lines at the bank, the pressure was on me to come out the other side with as little business impact as possible. Millions of customers could be negatively impacted, and hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake. No one would describe the task at hand as “innovation,” but the problems we ultimately faced would require a high-performance team producing innovative solutions. 

High-performance teams are those that rise to the challenges they face. They’re prepared for what they might experience, they’re prepared for setbacks, and they’re prepared to excel. The CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, is credited with saying, “Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way. In a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. ‘Here, open it, it’s perfect. You’ll love it.’ Opportunities – the good ones – are messy, confusing and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.” It is the role of the Innovation Leader to assemble and guide dynamic teams that capably respond to complex problems and opportunities.

 Nine Traits of a High-Performing Innovation Team

We’ve all heard that a team goes through the recognisable stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing. Many teams will never reach the final stage. Fewer still will reach the levels of performance required to succeed in high-pressure situations that require an innovative response. Let’s explore nine traits of the high-performing innovation team:

  1. The high-performing team is empathetic and honest with itself. It uses feedback loops to identify weaknesses and shortcomings. 
  2. It creates the space and environment for both creativity and collaboration. 
  3. The team is fast when it can be; it is accurate when it needs to be. 
  4. It’s lean enough to be sufficiently agile. 
  5. The team knows how to learn what’s expected of it, and is courageously adaptable when it’s not delivering.
  6. It’s nimble when facing multiple obstacles, and resilient when it faces a mighty one. 
  7. It anticipates the changes and pressures it may face, and can quickly respond when they present themselves. 
  8. High performing teams have both deep expertise and broad experience.
  9. And they feel empowered to take risks to perform at the level required.

Teams don’t start this way. There are traits that must be recruited for. There are skills and behaviours (or roles) that must be developed and nurtured. Further, some learned behaviours can be difficult to undo, such as if teams develop particularly rigid norms. 

How did your high performance team develop? Who was responsible for creating the environment in which your high performance team thrived?

From Functional Roles to Team Roles

One of my favorite quotes is from the physicist Max Planck, who said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” In that quote lies the premise of the high-performance team building approach of establishing “team roles.” By shifting from functional roles to team roles you teams can perform at a higher level. Using team roles is a mechanism for changing the way you, and others, look at things. It can open up a world of possibilities that wasn’t otherwise available to you or your team.

Researcher R. Meredith Belbin found that team intellect is not the ultimate predictor of team success. Instead, teams whose members play roles that are compatible with each other are more likely to be successful. In such teams, members assume roles associated not only with their functional expertise, but what is required for strong teamwork. Functional roles feature specific responsibilities that appear in one’s job description; the expectation of a functional role tends to be fixed. By contrast, team roles are behavioural traits that do not appear in job descriptions. These traits are variable, such as coaching others, or challenging assumptions.

High performance innovation teams feature a blend of functional experts who also know how to adapt the role they play. By defining and teaching team roles, team members learn language related to how to behave, and how to contribute, while performing a functional role. 

Recall the bank system conversion example I shared earlier. For my team to succeed, we needed deep subject matter expertise in the room [Experts]. Creative-thinking types were needed as well, especially those who had extensive networks we could draw from [Connectors]. Strong process drivers would keep us focused on the most important problems we faced [Initiators]. Curious teammates would ask great questions, mine data, and synthesize insight from multiple sources [Observers]. Some would have to play the role of coaches who would boost us up and keep the room light [Teammates]. We had to develop the trust to challenge each other and question our approaches [Agitators]. Great communication and negotiation were required, both inside and outside of our room [Champions]. And someone had to focus on securing us the time, space, and resources required to deliver on what was expected [Architects]. 

Our team’s job titles mattered far less than the way the team responded to the pressures, problems, and opportunities it faced. We had eight members. Each member played multiple roles, and we were able to shift the roles readily, so it felt as if we had twenty. Ultimately, we were wildly successful. We had fun, we stretched ourselves, we grew, and we exceeded expectations. In many respects, this high level of performance was a surprise to me. I wasn’t sure what we’d done well, or where we could improve, but it truly felt like I was part of something special. The important question, to me, became How do you replicate this feeling in other circumstances, with different team members? 

The Role of the Innovation Leader

You cannot lead others dynamically if you don’t understand how to be dynamic, yourself. This begins with a recognition of your tendencies and strengths–that is, traits you can fall back upon and use to deliver value. Being dynamic involves creating different versions of yourself, sometimes pushing outside the comfort of your strengths to play the part that’s required for the team. For instance, a creative genius will never become an Innovation Leader if they don’t learn to sell their ideas, to listen, or to ask great questions.

An Innovation Leader must recognise strengths in others as well, but that’s not enough. The Innovation Leader must learn to shift others’ behaviour by challenging them at appropriate times, to set them up for success. This is sometimes selfless, such as stepping back to let another learn to lead, thereby putting the potential of the team ahead of seeking credit as a leader.

And the Innovation Leader must understand to not only see the bigger picture of a team’s work, but also to influence, if not create, the bigger picture. It is not enough to know what your team can do in a specific situation, a great Innovation Leader develops strength and resilience in teams that can translate to any situation. Utilising team roles in both team design and execution can build this strength quickly. The best teams intentionally design their interaction models based on what a situation calls for, with individuals playing often more than one role. 

Leading by facilitating the roles that team members play can be a highly effective model for helping teams innovate successfully in complex organisations. The roles presented above (Experts, Connectors, Initiators, etc.) represent a blend of traits and behaviors found in innovators who are successful change agents within their organisations. 

The high-performance team is rarely an accident. There is often a leader who doesn’t step foot on the field of play, who has created the environment for the team to succeed. In my bank system conversion example, I was not the Innovation Leader that created the environment for success, but I learned a great deal about what’s required for a team to succeed: I’ve learned to lead in a learning environment to drive change (The Architect). I get out in front of teams with vision & passion (The Champion). I ask powerful, possibility-based questions that challenge others (The Agitator). I lift others up and coach them through turbulence (The Teammate). I seek and provide clarity within the signals of change where others see chaos (The Observer). I reduce the risk of taking risks through experimentation (The Initiator). I’ve developed a high-quality network to connect dots across a variety of sources (The Connector). And I thrive in the ambiguity of innovation work (The Expert). 

Acting alone I would not accomplish anything at all. Innovation Leadership is about taking others with you. After all, challenging the status quo systems of complex organisations can be quite lonely; it’s best if you have company.

Aaron Proietti writes about innovation archetypes in his book, Today’s Innovator. He has profiled each of his eight archetypes, and here the Innovation Leader archetype, in a series of pieces prepared for The Future Shapers.