The Best People

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Because innovation it’s not just about having a great idea – because it involves execution and delivery of value – it’s absolutely necessary to have the right people in place to ensure that you can deliver. You therefore must build a team. My three cardinal rules for a successful innovation team are:

  • get the best people you can
  • figure out what you need them to do
  • tell them.

Both my blogs and my book speak in a lot of detail about the second bullet point, which concerns defining customer and stakeholder needs and identifying activities that will create value for them that your organisation can capture. The third bullet will be covered in my second book where I explore process. For the purposes of this blog, that first bullet point is important. To have the best team, you must get the best people.

Writing in Innovate the Pixar Way in 2010, Bill Capodagli and Lynn Jackson quoted Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull on teams. What Catmull effectively said was that a great team is more important than a great idea – a mediocre team can fail to capitalise on a great idea, whereas a great team can take an average idea and making something great from it. He understood and perfectly described the importance of the team. In the same book, they wrote about how director Brad Bird asked for the “black sheep” when he wanted to make sure that his project, The Incredibles, finished on time. Bird asked for the frustrated artists, the ones that were not being listened to and that were probably about to leave the company. Those “malcontents” paid Bird back handsomely as the movie turned out to have the lowest cost for a minute of any Pixar film made at that time. People and teams can achieve great things if they believe that they are trusted to do so. The converse can also be true, whereby teams – especially engineering teams – will tend to over-engineer or to reinvent the wheel if they are worried about losing their jobs.

If you have an urgent need to fill a role in a team, and you can’t find that “A player” to fill it, the temptation is often to settle for the “least worst” option to avoid the delays that would inevitably result from starting the search all over again. I’ve done this myself, and it was a huge mistake. It’s always worth waiting for the best person, never worth hiring somebody who you know deep down isn’t quite right in haste and then repenting at leisure. Conversely, it’s almost always a good idea to hire and then find the right fit for a great person if the opportunity presents itself, even if you don’t have a suitable vacancy for them at the time. Hiring a great person in the present will almost always turn out to be an excellent investment in the future. But watch out for over-confidence. In my experience, the people who are most capable tend to be the ones that worry most about their abilities and errors. The ones who come across as the most confident are not always the most competent. The Dunning-Kruger effect was named after a 1999 study by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, which found that people who performed poorly in a number of different tasks tended to grossly overestimate their abilities when compared to their more able peers. Kruger and Dunning concluded that not only do unskilled people perform poorly, but that “their incompetence robs them of the… ability to realise”. Ray Dalio captured this perfectly in his book Principles, when he wrote about how the only people who need to worry are those who are not worried – and vice versa. He wrote it in the context of risk management at work, but it applies equally to people’s behaviour and self-awareness. Being able to admit and thereby address weakness is a strength that you should look for in all team members, not least your team leader.

Matthew Syed opened his 2019 book Rebel Ideas with a discussion of the importance of diversity in thinking, and I can’t reiterate here strongly enough how important it is to have variety in your team. Don’t fall into the trap of hiring people like yourself. Hire people who are different to you, who offer a new perspective and who will challenge you when necessary! The more diverse your team, the more perspectives you will get, and the more likely it is that you will be able to solve problems. Strive for diversity in background to get as much insight as possible when problem-solving. Try to balance experience with youth. If you’re building an engineering team, you will find that younger engineers are typically more likely to be interested in modelling and the use of digital twins, whereas older, more experienced ones will be able to bring a different viewpoint based on mathematical analysis, hand calculations and physical verification by experiments. You must make sure that you have practical experience on the team, if for no other reason than to represent the future users of your new product or service. I almost had an engineering team revolt once when I charged our assembly and maintenance technicians with writing the assembly manual for a new product. The view of the engineering team was that only they could do this. “What do those guys know about how to build this equipment?” they asked me. “Everything; they have built all your prototypes and fixed a lot of your mistakes along the way!” was my reply.

A little over twenty years ago, I took on the project management function for a large industrial company. There was a full project portfolio that was enough work for eight project managers – some of them were dedicated to big projects, others had their own mini-portfolio of smaller ones. The problem I discovered, when I joined, was that there weren’t really eight project managers. There were only four, one of whom quit on my first morning (he’d been looking for a job for months and had finally secured one, so I didn’t take it personally). Before I had even started my learning curve in the new job, I had a big problem to solve, and I had to solve it quickly. My immediate action was to find a sub-contract project manager who was willing to take on some of the work, but this wasn’t a permanent solution – not least because he lived about ninety minutes away from our office. That bought me a little bit of time, but I still had to rebuild the team. I could have hired five experienced project managers from other companies or industries, but they would have had no knowledge of our company, its culture, its business or its products and services. My resolution was to hire three experienced project managers from outside and to bring in two high-quality individuals, who had no experience at all of managing projects, from other functions in the company. Now, I had a diverse team who would support each other in no small part because they needed to learn from each other. The internal hires showed the new project managers the ropes and how the company worked. The external hires, in turn, gave back a lot of hints and tips about project management and brought new ideas and philosophies based on their own external experience. This diverse team was successful because it collectively had a lot more experience than any individual could have brought to the situation.

In his 2003 book How Breakthroughs Happen, Andrew Hargadon described how Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of motor cars by drawing together a diverse team from a wide range of different industries and with different experiences. According to Hargadon, Ford deliberately went out and found the best people and the best ideas he could from outside his industry. Free from the shackles of “how things are done” in the automobile industry, his team was able to create something completely new and revolutionary. People in your team who come from outside your organisation will bring new ideas and new solutions and help you to avoid two of the biggest enemies of creativity and innovation: “We tried that before” and “Not invented here”. As described in the first volume, most great ideas are in fact nothing more than new combinations of existing concepts and bringing people in from outside will significantly increase your chances of being able to identify and use this existing treasure trove of possibilities. Often, teams that don’t know that something “won’t work” will just carry on and make it work. Successful innovation often involves repurposing existing ideas rather than coming up with brand-new ones and bringing external wisdom and experience into your team to facilitate that process can be a very powerful thing.

Many years of experience have taught me that to maximise its potential, this diverse team should also be loosely bound to a functional organisation – it should not be fully autonomous, but neither should it be fully integrated. That’s a hard balance to get right, and the new book (or perhaps a future blog) will explain how to achieve it. For now, though, the lesson is: if you don’t take the time to assemble the right team, you won’t succeed.

Want to Know More?

The second volume of my book: Strategy and Innovation for a Changing World – Part 2: Sustainability Through Velocity is now available to pre-order in paperback. The topics introduced in this blog are expanded on and covered in much more detail in Chapter 5: “Putting the Right Team Together”. I hope this short introduction has whetted your appetite!

References and Further Reading

Capodagli, B., & Jackson, L. (2010). Innovate the Pixar Way: Business Lessons from the World’s Most Creative Corporate Playground. New York: McGraw Hill.

Dalio, R. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hargadon, A. (2003). How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.

Syed, M. (2019). Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking. London: John Murray.


© 2022 J M Clegg Ltd

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

2 thoughts on “The Best People”

  1. John, even if you don’t have the very best people in your team (because you can’t always choose who you get) it is good leadership which can create an amazing team out of what is given to them, and they can still produce astounding results. You know what I’m talking about!

    1. Thanks John. I know exactly what you’re talking about ?. There’s a lot in the book about leadership too. I may post a little of that in the next few weeks!

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