Facilitating Innovation with Your Team

Facilitating Innovation with Your Team

The Age of Innovation is Upon Us

The days of process management are fading away. Standardized work tasks find themselves automated by machines or outsourced to foreign entities. This is ushering in the era of knowledge creation. Where the goal of organizations is to discover how to find and take advantage of new value in the market. The major change from the past of maintaining the status quo becoming easier with cheaper methods to execute repeatable processes. The emphasis now shifts to continuous growth. Executive leadership teams now realize the critical investment it is to enable team creativity. The goal for leadership becomes facilitating innovation with your teams.

Group Creativity

This shift has uncovered two significant challenges for the modern leader. The challenge is that though teams are needed in the creative process because of the expanded breadth of domain knowledge required to address the complexity of solutions, teams thwart truly creative thinking. Simply, groups routinely underperform individuals in creative performance. While perceived that teams innovate more, groups actually inhibit creative ideas instead of stimulating idea generation. When working in groups, individuals fixate on how the group perceives them versus focusing on unique ideas.

Historic Leadership Practices

Secondly, historical leadership practices for running an effective organization run counter to creating an innovative environment. Management brings order and structure. Creativity breaks out chains to explore what could be. The famed psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, captured the traits of the creative person. Finding that creative person highly energetic, challenging, and playful. Moreover, creative people’s reality rooted in fantasy. Highly independent, curious, and divergent thinkers open to new ideas. Most management practices focus on bringing clarity, order, and alignment to an organization. An open-minded creative mindset runs counter to this approach.

Framework for Team Innovation

Reversing the innovation and management paradox is not found in a new structure or new architecture. Adopting a different mindset towards organizational leadership successfully impacts invigorating creativity in an organization. Specifically, facilitating innovation with one’s team puts the focus on creating the optimal working environment for experts to succeed in managing their areas of specialty. Such a model calls for the manager to cede control and to give empowerment and authority to the most knowledgeable. A shift of this nature is the cornerstone of innovation enablement.

To best understand the concept of an innovation environment, imagine an organization broken into four intertwined quadrants: culture, workflow, team dynamics, and facilitative leadership. Each of these four areas is critical in its own regard, yet uniquely contributes to each of the other three areas.


Culture is the backbone of an organization. It drives both good and bad behaviors while being the lynchpin on how work gets accomplished. In the context of innovation, culture holds the key to organizational encouragement (or discouragement) of innovation. Culture is shaped to fulfill a vision through leaders’ actions and behaviors that are rewarded and repeated which signals to the organization the unwritten values and norms.

In support of the vision, is the emphasis on people being able to express ideas safely. Innovators should not feel pressured or threatened as this constrains idea generation, but more preferably relaxed and alert which facilitates creative thought. This has a direct tie to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs where, before an individual can achieve their peak performance and self-mastery, they must have their physiological and safety needs met.

Defining Culture

Culture can be defined by the behaviors that it rewards and reinforces. Strong innovation cultures reward outcomes, of course, but more than anything they reward individuals who take risks. Remember, it does not take long for people to stop sharing provocative ideas if the only ideas they can share must have already been proven as viable. By rewarding risk-taking, individuals can be bolder and consider the unproven or unpopular which, ultimately, leads to more creative ideas. Netflix has taken painstaking efforts to skillfully craft its culture such that innovation is its necessary heartbeat. Captured within Netflix’s culture deck is people’s freedom to take risks. Netflix wants its people to experiment and, especially when the experiment does not pan out, to quickly learn from it and keep innovating.


If culture is the backbone of an organization, then the workflow of operations is the circulatory system that keeps everything moving. Just as the Lean methodology looks at organizational workflow searching for constraints to improve efficiency and effectiveness, the same can be said for the flow of innovation. When designing an operational model, an office set-up, or a timebound workshop, an important principle to keep in mind is ensuring a smooth flow of ideas that don’t become constrained by outside interruptions.

In innovation, a well-known heuristic is that the best ideas come when there are the most ideas. Working this way creates the facilitation of more ideas or a mass of ideas. This, in turn, has a direct correlation to better ideas where quantity breeds quality. When individuals start their creative process, the easy solutions are close to the top of the mind and the more ideas that they must produce, the greater the depth of creativity they will be forced to explore.

Deep Thoughts

A team working on innovation truly benefits from being able to engage in deep and focused thought. ‘Deep work’ is the mentally encompassing work that ultimately challenges a team to stretch to new heights through specific cognitive concentration. This is where truly insightful ideas are often born. Eliminating added interference for individuals to achieve a higher level of deep thought. Unfortunately, too much office work can consist of busy and shallow activities, work that can be done despite distractions and while multitasking. Making the space – both physically and in the calendar – for teams to do this deep work is absolutely critical to innovation. Urgent thinking usually leads to a rush to judgment, something not usually the grounds for a team’s best work.

The director of movies such as Dunkirk and Batman, Christopher Nolan, emphasizes these points in his movies. For example, he bans the use of phones on his movie sets. Guided by the belief that bubbles of creativity exist in which people will get lost. He intends to eliminate the distractions that prevent people from natural engagement and creative thought. Nolan believes those creative bubbles burst with mobile phones which take people out of the space for deep levels of focused concentration.

Team Dynamics

As mentioned earlier, a single individual produces greater innovation than a group of people. There are several causes of this, from there being a lack of a safe space to share provocative ideas to not incorporating all perspectives into a conversation to the times when a dominant opinion can (intentionally or otherwise) take over the group. Despite this, a team of innovators holds the capability to create powerful ideas to solve complex issues if they are guided correctly. Two critical ingredients help to ensure strong, collaborative team dynamics during the innovation process.

First, a leader will want to create a team that is cognitively diverse and comfortable debating with one another. Creativity improves by incorporating the ideas of people with different specialties and thought processes. Having a diversity of backgrounds enables a range of individual cultures within the team, creating opportunities for cognitive diversity. This can also elicit debate and argument in the group to challenge the merits of ideas and to ensure a full perspective is taken. One of the main concerns with a team brainstorming is the prevalence of groupthink.


Often, groupthink negatively impacts effectiveness as the goal shifts from creating originality to achieving a consensus. Much like chemicals in a reaction, different temperaments, talents, convictions, and approaches need to work off one another. Friction, debate, and dissent in the conversation stimulate innovative thinking bringing about new, interesting, and varied perspectives on an issue. Wilbur and Orville Wright had the advantage of being brothers but maximized this approach during the build of their first airplane. Percieved to think as one, however, it was common for them to fight and debate for weeks over pivotal decisions.

Once a diverse team is established the goal of the leader is to ensure that there is balanced team participation. A team’s importance is its ability to incorporate the minds of the entire group versus just a lone individual. If one person dominates the conversation, then the efforts to incorporate multiple perspectives have been wasted. Such a dynamic will negatively impact all participants thus limiting their maximum contribution. Several techniques counteract this behavior from establishing ground rules and team agreements to facilitating teams to start as individuals in developing their ideas before sharing with the group.


Leadership is many different things to many different people. In the context of innovation and of generating creative ideas, one could say leadership is the catalyst for creative success. Encouraging leadership can inspire just as quickly as pessimistic leadership can mute risky initiatives. The role of the leader in the innovation space is to guide people into sharing their insights, exploring things in ways that may be new or even uncomfortable, and generating ideas far beyond what would have typically come from a usual conversation.

Being innovative and creating out of nothing is a masterful art, one which begs the individual to have the freedom to experiment and explore. In innovation management, leaders do well for their teams when they award autonomy and then remain judgment-free during the creative process. As the creator refines their process of how they innovate, it is necessary for the facilitative leader to encourage this behavior instead of fixating on the abnormal deviations. Empowering the creator to concentrate on ideas instead of focusing on getting reprimanded. For example, the artist, Rayce Bird, routinely runs wind sprints during design breaks to reinvigorate the cardiovascular system which he believes opens the flow of creative ideas.


Autonomy associates with releasing control to explore ambiguity. As a leader, this is shifting the focus from hitting the deadline to encouraging the team to be curious. Exploring beyond the surface level. Doing so enables the innovator to delve into their deep and focused work, an approach that breeds creation. The shallow work that resides in the structured norms of an organization results in benchmarking competitors and maintaining the status quo. The deep work that explores ambiguous relationships, social connections and complexities lead to the market shifting disruptive innovation.

Strategic Gambles

History tells us that not every gamble will pay off, nor will every initiative. Venture capitalists know this well: they may bet on ten companies expecting most will fail and happy if just one of them makes it big enough to cover all the other the investments. Few investors believe that success comes without tolerance for failure. Pfizer went through this same process in the early 1990s during their quest to create high blood pressure and chest pain medication.

As the trials proved unsuccessful the product became close to being shelved. However, scientists found that it could address erectile dysfunction. This patience played out resulting in a dramatic market shift from the original vision. Which led to a twenty-year, $32 billion revenue run for Viagra. While the intent was specific in the beginning, the innovation cycle is never a straight path. Moreover, never does it end exactly as predicted. Like most things, maintaining patience to see things through to the outcome can pay huge dividends.


Your role as a leader is changing from complexity manager to expert enablement. The encouragement of innovative thought while difficult will provide long-term organizational success. Implementing specific actions to shape your culture, workflow, team, and leadership can make significant gains in building an innovative team.


Reynolds, A. a. (2018). Hence The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams. Harvard Business Review.

Watson, M. (2018). Another Common Strategies and Practices Among Facilitators of Innovative Thinking in Organizations. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest.

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