00 : 00 : 00

The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook: The Innovator’s Personality


Published by:

13 September 2019

Author: Martin Raymond

Image: The Trend Forecaster's Handbook


In his fourth column for The Trend Forecasters Handbook book, Martin Raymond looks at innovation.

Some of us are born innovators, as our current Innovation Debrief report shows, while the rest of us have to work at it, usually in teams of varying ability and organisations where innovation is discussed but seldom delivered. Or worse, when it is delivered it is done in that death-by-a-thousand-indecisions manner that turns even the most hopeful of ideas into the most hazy of compromises.

As Mini designer Sir Alec Issigonis once put it, a camel is a horse designed by committee, and as I discovered when researching the innovation section for my latest book, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook, there are a lot of camels out there in the world – especially after corporate innovation teams have got their hands on what promised to be a thoroughbred horse at the start of the exercise.

But that’s not to say that innovation teams, or innovation committees as one CEO I interviewed referred to them, are to be frowned upon. Merely that organisations need to better understand their role, and more importantly, their internal dynamics, if they are to get the best out of them. And best in this case means a decision that isn’t tainted by compromise thinking or diluted solutions. To achieve this properly, however, you have to test and interrogate your team before you test and interrogate the idea or innovation itself.

This wasn’t at all apparent when I set out to look at innovation sprints and innovation strategy during my initial sorties into the world of sprints, innovation dives or white spacing. A lot of people I interviewed had a very clear understanding of the innovation process itself, but few seemed to understand the importance of getting the balance and mix of the team right from the start.

Generally, when I asked leaders what they were looking for in the right team configuration the response was invariably a combination of the following: diversity, flexibility, heterophilous thinking, an entrepreneurial spirit, a start-up mentality and a disruptive mindset.

Well, good luck with that! There is more likelihood of getting the said camel through the eye of a needle than most corporations have of finding such a combination in their workforce or organisation. By nature, these people are not joiners, or if they are, they are swift and early leavers, usually because large-scale corporates are unable to do what needs to be done – think, do, then think and do it counter-intuitively.

The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook
'What an innovation team should contain is a hybrid of all of the above, not either, and certainly not or.'

More likely, if we look in any organisation we’ll find people with some of these traits; for example, people who are risk-friendly, diverse in their thinking, demonstrate some ‘weak-tie’ attributes in their networks, counter-intuitive thinking in their outlook and are opportunities-focused when presented with challenges.   

But we are equally, if not more likely, to find a second category: those who are cautious, sceptical, analytical, cranky, contrary or culturally mainstream. And because a CEO knows what she should say; that is, that we are a future-facing company blah blah that embraces innovation blah blah and welcomes disruption blah blah, she, or her male counterparts, tend to say that their innovation teams should contain the same over-arching qualities. While they’re right, my research and experience suggest that they are mainly, globally wrong. What an innovation team should contain is a hybrid of all of the above, not either, and certainly not or. In short, what is needed is a group of people who can be classified in one of the following archetypes, or at least with most of the major characteristics they contain:

: The Pioneer– who burns to identify the new and the next, regardless of the risks involved, the limitations on budgets or the resources available

: The Problem-solver– who, despite the challenge, won’t back away from tackling it and who is always a good ally and foil for the unbridled approach of the pioneer

: The Analyst– who invariably looks at the data before making a decision, always asks the right questions and is very good at providing context for any decision that needs to be made

: The Producer– who is the person in a team or group of people in an organisation who helps others to realise their ideas in ways that are practical, tangible and actionable. Like Early Adopters (and many of them fit into this typology, by the way), they are good connectors, consummate collaborators and very good at explaining an idea in ways that make it intelligible and sticky

: The Rebel– who is good at pushing people to do better and to think outside the box, and is good at bending the rules, sometimes even breaking them if it means the idea will get off the ground

: The Pragmatist– who tends to take a more cautious approach, and who wants to get the essentials done and sorted before the project is finally committed, in case valuable time is wasted or the idea itself isn’t in the end workable

: The Contrarian– who is a lone or minority voice and challenges the majority in a fair, rational and evidence-based manner with a view to testing all parameters of the idea they are proposing

I’ve seen variations of the above list in many organisations, especially if they are younger, less legacy-heavy SMEs, where they tend to discard the pragmatists and contrarians on the grounds that they don’t have them or don’t want them. Again, wrong. The pragmatist and the contrarian, like ballast on a balloon or the elevators on an aircraft, are vital to the trajectory, stability, balance and clarity of a sprint.

At GV, formerly Google Ventures, for example, where the five-day sprint concept has been taken to a different level, doubters, dissenters or cynics are a must. As the team there told me: ‘These are the people with strong, contrary opinions, and who you might be slightly uncomfortable including in your sprint.’

The Trend Forecaster's Handbook
‘Each expert in the room will provide a key contribution – whether it’s background information, a fresh idea or even a shrewd observation of your customers. Exactly what they’ll do is impossible to predict. But with the right team in place, unexpected solutions will appear.’

Why? Because the role of troublemaker, like the role of adversarial collaborator (a job within a team frequently assumed by thinkers such as Daniel Kahneman), is a valuable one to nurture in any organisation or innovation group if you value an idea being challenged and tested to its limits.

As Lindred Greer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says: ‘It’s important for teams to have a devil’s advocate who is constructive and careful in communication, who carefully and artfully facilitates discussion.’

Done well, this leads to reflective discussion and can avoid the group think and those communal biases outlined in my previous columns. Indeed, research carried out by Greer and a number of colleagues from the universities of Texas, Michigan, North Carolina and South Australia suggests that teams with a lone minority dissenter outperformed other teams where all members agreed.

In many instances, team members will fall into the above types more often than not anyway, but it is always worth testing at the team interview stage to ensure that you have a good mix of the right types from the outset. Too many rebels, and you can end up with a lot of energy that is badly directed; too many analysts, and issues can be overthought or paralysed by too much data and so on.

You will also need your facilitator, and a knowledge and insight manager – one of the existing team who is good at managing time, noting conversations and capturing the best ideas and insights, along with someone who is completely familiar with all of the data that has been collected (your librarian) and who knows where and how to find it when required.

Generally, it is important that all participants in the innovation team you are putting together have a clear overall role, and that this is clear to all others taking part. As Jake Knapp, who works on GV sprints, says, it’s a bit like the team from Ocean’s Eleven.‘You know all the characters are in the script for a reason, but you don’t know exactly what they are going to do until they do it.

‘Each expert in the room will provide a key contribution – whether it’s background information, a fresh idea or even a shrewd observation of your customers. Exactly what they’ll do is impossible to predict. But with the right team in place, unexpected solutions will appear.’

But only if you push everybody, dismiss nobody and ensure that no idea, no matter how ridiculous, is ruled out. As the futurist and innovator Professor James Dator suggests, any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous. If it isn’t, especially during those crucial nascent stages, then you probably risk giving birth to another camel.

Next week, The Innovation Sprint Revamped. 

Martin Raymond is co-founder of The Future Laboratory. You can order a signed copy of his latest book, The Trend Forecaster’s Handbook, below.

The trend forecasters handbook



Get in touch to learn more about The Future Laboratory’s products and services