Building a well-balanced innovation team

Building a well-balanced innovation team

Functional, gender, cultural, generational and cognitive diversity is important

Have you ever been part of an innovation project team? How effectively did you and your colleagues resolve your innovation challenge? And how enjoyable was your creative teamwork?

Working on an effective innovation team can be a career highlight. But the individual members only click into gear if the group is well-composed, with different yet complementary personalities.

Suppose your company has chosen you to organise and run a major innovation project. As the project owner, you're now responsible for specifying the key project parameters. You need to:

  • Frame the initial challenge (for example, "How to create new ice cream products for 6- to 10-year-old kids") and specify the related innovation type (in this case, product innovation).
  • Highlight why this project is essential for your organisation, and make sure the budget allocated reflects its importance.
  • Settle on an innovation process method (such as design thinking or our X-IDEA innovation method) that fits the challenge and innovation type.

Select a professional innovation company or facilitator (in line with your budget) to guide you to the desired results.

Finally, you need to ask people-related questions: How many people can you involve overall (or in a particular stage)? How many days can you reasonably expect them to dedicate to the project? Who are we going to invite to help us work on the project? And how are we going to split those workshop delegates up into effective innovation teams?


What success factors make a team effective? You may think of factors such as trust, joint goals and open communication, and you're right. But diversity tops them all.

In innovation, diversity means we want to field project teams that represent a rich mix of backgrounds related to professional knowledge and skills and a broad take on life and the human experience. Diverse teams think more broadly and contribute more viewpoints and perspectives. Hence, they tend to produce better insights and a bigger, richer idea pool than teams that are less diverse.

While building heterogeneous innovation project teams, we have to consider five aspects of diversity: business function, culture and nationality, gender, generation, and, most importantly, cognitive styles. Let's discuss each of these aspects below.

1. Functional diversity: Make sure each innovation team represents a broad, diverse range of related business functions. Typically, this includes the core functions of the corporate value chain. Depending on the project, you may also want to add selected members from supporting functions.

Do you want to add even more functional diversity? Then you can invite key customers or suppliers to broaden your thinking even further.

2. Gender diversity: As much as possible, balance the number of male and female delegates on a project team. A good gender mix ensures each team can contribute more gender-specific perspectives. Moreover, teams tend to be more motivated and energetic if they comprise members of both sexes. Last but not least, fielding gender-mixed teams also helps to avoid gender stereotyping.

3. Intercultural diversity: Innovation projects with multinational corporations typically involve multicultural delegates. Here it is essential to aim for an equal number of local and international members on each team. If possible, avoid having international delegates from one country on the same team, as they may end up hanging out together all the time.

Moreover, instead of focusing on nationalities, group the delegates based on geographical regions before distributing them into well-mixed but balanced intercultural teams.

4. Generational diversity: As an innovation project owner, you may lean towards predominantly inviting Generation X and millennial members to help with your project. However, you should also include a few motivated Baby Boomers to allow the teams to benefit from the deep work and life experience they can contribute.

Depending on the project, also consider adding a few post-millennials; these young Gen Z colleagues may have just joined your company and their input could be valuable.

5. Cognitive diversity: Consider the personalities of the people involved and let them play to their preferred cognitive styles at the right time. If you know everyone well enough, you may be able to gauge the personalities of each participant. However, a more professional approach is to profile all participants with a sophisticated cognitive profiling method such as our TIPS innovator profiling test.

For example, in the Master in Business Innovation programme at Bangkok University, we profile all incoming graduate students with TIPS. The results give us detailed information on the preferred styles each student uses to think, work, interact, live and innovate.

More importantly, we learn about which of the 11 innovator profiles each student fits, and the relative development level of that profile. Later on, I use this information to develop three or four combinations of different innovation teams. Thereby, each team comprises cognitively diverse people with the right mix of styles and TIPS base orientations (Theories, Ideas, People and Systems).

Of course, I also consider intercultural and gender aspects while composing these teams. Later on, we use these lists to field different project teams to work on real-life innovation project cases that relate to each course in the programme.

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy, the "Know how to Wow" Innovation Company in Asia and beyond. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation - Southeast Asia at Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Email

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