Team performance and Innovation. Four Critical Considerations

Anthony was asked to lead a new cross-functional team at his company. The mission of the team — innovation. Senior leadership felt that the company’s historic reliance on serendipity was not enough to drive future success, and that a more formal, structured approach was required to identify and propose innovation initiatives for development.

As Anthony considered his new responsibility, he drew on his experience at the company, his leadership skills, and his successful track record as a team leader. He identified four areas of emphasis to help assure successful team-based innovation.


In the past, Anthony had great success employing Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™  — trust, healthy conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. He felt that all five behaviors were as important and interconnected as ever. Given the team’s mission to foster innovation, however, Anthony believed that trust was especially critical to long-term success. 

Lencioni emphasizes the need for “vulnerability-based” trust. When every member of the team is genuinely open and honest with each other, they make themselves vulnerable to each other. This type of open, candid trust creates a safe environment to:

  • Say that you don’t know the answer to a question
  • Talk about why you think one person’s idea is stronger than another’s
  • Ask for help — “I’m not very good at this piece; can you show me how to do it?”
  • Offer sincere feedback

The very word, “innovation,” conjures images of change, transformation, creativity, newness, and originality. A team engaged in innovation is, by definition, traveling uncertain and undefined terrain.

Anthony understood the fundamental importance of trust in this situation — what could be more essential than creating a “safe environment” to discuss, assess, and critique ideas grounded in innovation. For more about the Five Behaviors and trust, read Arden Coaching’s “Essentials of Team Performance: Trust.”

Bad” Ideas are Not Failures

Generally, something that is innovative is something that has not been done before — at least not at your company. Truly innovative ideas are often unique and almost always involve some risk.

Having an idea and putting it on the table can be terrifying. Anthony knew that people might hold back out of concern about other team member’s reactions. No one wants to be thought of as naive, impractical, or uninformed. But the innovation team needed to be willing to explore every idea, no matter how off-beat. 

Early on, Anthony determined that the team’s culture would foster, even celebrate, “bad” ideas. Brainstorming techniques demonstrate that good ideas frequently come out of bad ideas. Bad ideas, in an environment of healthy debate (see below), often trigger a different pattern of thinking that iterates to a new idea that solves a problem or creates an opportunity in an innovative way.

Healthy Conflict

Like his emphasis on trust, Anthony believed healthy conflict was also especially relevant for the innovation team. Healthy conflict is productive, positive debate. Built on vulnerability-based trust, it is the capacity to openly and honestly discuss ideas, issues, and proposed actions. It is behavior based on the belief that for the team to win, the best idea needs to win.

Anthony knew that most of the innovation team’s discussion and debate would revolve around things that no one could really know for sure. Would a new approach to pricing attract more customers? Would a new distribution model grow market share? Would monetizing a service open new markets?

These ideas — any ideas — would need to be vetted in the most positive, healthy forum for discussion possible. For more about the Five Behaviors and healthy conflict, read Arden Coaching’s “Essentials of Team Performance: Healthy Conflict.”

Ensuring a Company Culture that Values Innovation

Anthony recognized that the innovation team could not operate in a vacuum. To succeed, the culture of the company needed to support innovation initiatives. In “Strategy That Works” by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, culture is defined as “…the reservoir of behaviors, thoughts, feelings, values, and mind-sets that people in an enterprise share.”

Anthony believed that the culture at his company offered a fertile environment for innovation. To be sure, Anthony began working tactically to reinforce his company’s openness to, and support of, change and innovation. He adopted something called the “critical-few” approach, developed by culture expert Jon Katzenbach.

Employing the critical-few approach, Anthony enlisted the support of a handful of informal leaders throughout the company who believed in the importance of innovation.   Anthony worked with them to demonstrate to others how support of innovation connected emotionally with what the company stands for and what employees care about. Lastly, these critical-few exhibited behaviors that would support innovation going forward — for example, showing an interest in new ideas and never dismissing an idea out-of-hand.

With these thoughts in mind, Anthony was ready to tackle this new opportunity.

To learn more about high performing teams, the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, and leadership skills to promote innovation, contact us at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.