If Your Innovation Effort Isn’t Working, Look at Who’s on the Team

By Nathan Furr, Kyle Nel & Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy

An all-star team is making headway with a new initiative. Then the results begin taking longer than anticipated to prove, and after too much time spent outside their individual comfort zones, the team of high-achieving employees can’t seem to execute within the uncertain environment.

How could such a capable team fail?

Transformation-capable teams are made up of people who not only are high performers, but hold a unique balance of skills and mindsets that allow them to sustain focus, agility and optimism in the face of uncertainty. Ultimately, not all top-performing employees are equipped for this. There are three unique characteristics that will play critical roles as a team takes on a breakthrough initiative.

Being comfortable with uncertainty

The term “negative capability” was coined by the poet John Keats while describing writers like Shakespeare who were able to work within uncertainty and doubt. In a modern context, negative capability can be thought of as the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, even to entertain it, rather than to become so anxious by its presence that you have to prematurely race to a more certain, yet suboptimal, conclusion.

Leading and executing in unfamiliar territory

Chaos pilots are people who can creatively lead a project through uncertainty. Leaders who are chaos pilots are able to drive a team forward on a project even as the environment around them fluctuates.

Chaos pilots often care more about creating meaningful change than about climbing a corporate ladder or getting another star on their charts. Finding them can be challenging and requires observation and experimentation.

Divergent thinking, convergent action and influential communication

Finally, there are three neuropsychological traits to seek while building a transformative team. The first of the three, divergent thinking, is the ability to uniquely connect new information, ideas and concepts that are usually held far apart.

Convergent action, the second trait, is the ability to execute on these new ideas in order to create something tangible. And last, having the ability to communicate ideas in a coherent, compelling and influential way is paramount. This trait will inspire other leaders and decision-makers to believe, support and act on a novel idea or opportunity.

Each organizational project represents a moment of potential transformation, and each success helps a firm self-correct and become what it needs to be to survive: a malleable organization capable of capturing new opportunities.

Nathan Furr is an assistant professor of strategy, at INSEAD. Kyle Nel is the CEO and cofounder of Uncommon Partners. Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy is the founder and CEO of Neurons Inc. The three are coauthors of Leading Transformation: How to Take Charge of Your Company’s Future.


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