Building Your Strategic Innovation Team: Jobs, Roles and Proficiencies

“The strength of the team is in each individual member.
The strength of each member is the team.” – Phil Jackson

A large, global company was reconstituting its corporate innovation team after a period of massive and intense reorganization involving all aspects of corporate governance and business unit operations. The key innovation stakeholders were given what was essentially a blank sheet upon which to design and build a corporate innovation system that would drive transformational growth for the next decade and beyond. As is the case with most organization design projects, this blank sheet came with a complex and intricate set of aspirational goals, situational circumstances and contextual constraints that had strong roots in the legacy organization.

One of the keys to the ultimate success of corporate innovation is establishing a central innovation group whose mission is to design, build, operate and evolve the enterprise-wide innovation system. We are using the term “system” here to mean the organization culture, structure, processes, people and metrics. The first step for a leader tasked with creating this innovation system is to build his or her support team. But how is one to do this well? What tools are available to help the leader build their team? The answer is a methodology that lets the leader create a structured and clear-eyed look at the jobs the group needs to accomplish, the roles required to accomplish these jobs and the proficiencies required to be a master of these roles.  These roles and proficiencies then need to be matched against the proficiencies of specific individuals and the roles they will fill.

In this particular instance, the leader was given a handful of individuals as a starting point. The leader had to then figure out what he needed in order to create a complete team that could accomplish the aggressive objectives of the company. In this case, it gave him a chance to rethink how the innovation group was to be built and to establish a framework for creating the best team possible for the innovation journey ahead.

A Framework for Building an Innovation Team

A central innovation group[1] has a special charter to develop strategic innovations, not sustaining. They need to find opportunities that the Business Units or Lines of Business would or could not pursue on their own, but that are still within the strategic scope of the company. A company is typically more than the sum of its individual business units. A company has a mission and strategic intent that is only partially realized by the existing business units that comprise it. The establishment of a central innovation group is recognition that there are valuable innovations that fall in the gaps between the existing businesses or that are outside the current strategic horizon of business units whose primary focus is on making the quarterly numbers.

Building a central innovation group within a large organization is difficult. In no other organizational situation do you need to bring together a group of people with a more diverse set of proficiencies and personalities and put them on the front-line of the effort to insure a company’s future growth. No other organizational group needs to deal with this level of ambiguity and uncertainty, learn faster across a vast range of topics, and develop a large network of internal and external connections. Getting the people right is critical. But how to do this?

Two important factors in building an effective innovation team are having the right mix of people and having enough people to accomplish the company’s objectives. Figure 1 illustrates four possible outcomes that result from the number and the mix of people who comprise the central innovation group. Having the right mix is critical. It is better to have the right mix of people, even if you do not have enough of them. With at least a minimally viable organization the group will do the right things and, although the output of the group will be lower than desired, the results will deliver growth. Having the wrong mix of people will lead to poor results no matter how many people you have.

Figure 1 – Achieving an Optimally Performing Organization

If getting the right mix of people is critical, how do you know if you have it?  Two factors come into play when answering this question. These can be called Mission Synergy and Team Synergy, described as follows.

  • Mission Synergy – Having the right mix and distribution of proficiencies to get the necessary jobs done. These proficiencies are human skills and experiences that can be taught and learned and that have been identified as being highly important for the expert practice of innovation.
  • Team Synergy – Having specific individuals who work well as a team. These are the individual personality traits, motivations and behaviors that are critical for team functioning.

We are ignoring, for the moment, the very important aspect of Team Synergy and focusing here solely on the means of determining how to achieve Mission Synergy.

Achieving Mission Synergy

Every company has a different culture, strategy, organization and mission/vision that makes coming up with a universal and comprehensive list of attributes for a central innovation group impossible. But it is possible to have a framework for creating a mission-oriented organization that is appropriate for your company. This framework consists of the following components.

  • Jobs to do – The things that a well-functioning innovation system needs to accomplish. Doing these things well will result in the outcomes needed and desired.
  • Roles that accomplish jobs – A role gets a defined set of jobs done. Since not every job can be done by every person, the Role is a means of partitioning jobs up into discrete subsets that make sense to be done together.
  • Proficiencies – The skills, capabilities and expertise needed by a Role and manifested in people. Proficiencies are things that can be learned and mastered over time, they are not personality or mindset attributes that are the result of both nature and nurture.

It is important that the Jobs, Roles and Proficiencies (J-R-P) be both compatible with your company and slightly uncomfortable for your company. This group needs to push the company into new territory and expand the boundaries of what the company can do. To that end, the Jobs, Roles and Proficiencies will consist of elements that will look strange to the established human resources practices of the company.

The following sections are intended to give the reader a flavor of what some of the Jobs, Roles and Proficiencies could look like. These are actual descriptions being used by a large, multi-national company to build its corporate innovation team. This is by no means a comprehensive list and we have selected some of the more ‘unusual’ components to give a flavor of what can be included in such a framework.

Jobs to Do

A sampling of some of the more unusual jobs required by a central innovation team. These partial descriptions are selected from a list of 16 most important job categories for a central innovation group as determined by the leadership of a large, multi-national company.

  1. Futures – Create and maintain an informed set of futures, scenarios and forecasts that influence strategy and opportunity exploration.
  2. Opportunity Creation – Establish and maintain a process to create compelling opportunities. Maintain a system of opportunity focusing and shaping that results in high quality, transformational opportunities.
  3. Experience Insight – Observe, understand and describe relevant experiences of individuals and groups. Connect experience insight with design alternatives to influence opportunity design.
  4. External Relationships – Maintain and expand a network of connections with relevant community members. Participate in public and private activities that develop external relationships.

With 16 types of jobs, there will clearly be individuals doing more than one job. There will also be multiple people doing the same job. Roles are a way of accommodating this M:N relationship between people and jobs. A role is a collection of jobs that makes sense to do together from a people perspective. The following is a sampling of some of the more interesting roles selected from a list of 10 role descriptions.

  1. System Conductor – The leader of the team occupies the role of conductor more than anything else. They are making sure multiple pieces are playing in harmony to achieve the mission of the group.
  2. Opportunity Designer – A multi-faceted role that is central to the mission of the innovation group. The responsibilities of this role are to create and design new opportunities that are both significant (i.e., have great future impact) and acceptable (i.e., the company will get behind).
  3. Business Developer – A role that codifies the work that needs to be done to create new businesses with all that entails, both within the company and externally.

There are certain skills and levels of expertise that are required to fulfill a role and do a job well. Proficiencies are those things that people can learn and improve on over time. This means that things like personality and mindsets, which are much more difficult to change, are not a part of the set of proficiencies (they are accounted for elsewhere in the framework). Proficiencies are the link between what the group requires to do the jobs it needs to do (proficiencies needed) and actual people who have a set of proficiencies (proficiencies available). The following is a selection of some of the more interesting proficiencies from a list of 32 that are important in the practice of innovation.

  1. Strategic Agility – Understanding of the organization’s strategic intent, and ability to adjust and adapt strategic direction as a result of changing circumstances and priorities.
  2. Actionable Empathy – The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experience the motivations that underlie behaviors of interest. Being able to describe ‘why’ someone behaves the way they do.
  3. Mental Duality – Making sense of ambiguity. The ability to keep the whole and the parts in mind at once. The ability to go from the specific to the general and back again at will. The ability to connect the levels between the abstract and the concrete, the big picture and the details.
  4. Cognitive Bias Resistance – Being aware of, and working to mitigate, cognitive biases that seep into observation, interpretation and decision making.
  5. Organizational agility – Understanding of the organization’s power structures, influencers and detractors, and the ability to navigate around the organizational land-mines to bring people on board to accomplish goals

Using the Mission Synergy Framework

What has been presented above is a small portion of the overall innovation team building framework. But using even this small portion reveals interesting insights about existing and potential innovation teams. Here’s the way this portion of the tool works.

  1. Once the Jobs and Roles have been defined, a matrix is created that links Roles to Jobs. Each Role has a set of primary and secondary Jobs that it fulfills.
  2. Once the Proficiencies have been defined, a profile for each Role is created that defines each Proficiency as being critical, important, nice-to-have or irrelevant for that Role.
  3. From the Proficiencies–Role matrix, an ideal profile for each Role is created. This matrix shows the types of people, in terms of their Proficiencies, that should fulfill each Role and lets the system identify primary and secondary Roles for people and how the different Roles are correlated (e.g., someone who is good in an Opportunity Designer Role should also be good in a Futurist Role.)
  4. Each member of the existing team has a Proficiency profile filled out. The profile lists, for each of the 32 Proficiencies, if the individual has high, medium or low levels of that Proficiency. Sometimes the group leader does this for all team members. Other times, team members fill out their own profiles and then reach consensus with the group leader.
  5. Given the expected team size and loading factors, the tool determines a match between existing team individuals and Roles, how well those Roles are fulfilled by the individuals (and therefore how well the Jobs will get done), what gaps exist in the group and what the Role and Proficiency profiles are of people who could ideally fill those gaps.

There is clearly more involved than described in this high-level overview, but experience with this approach has shown that it is effective in providing deep insight into the type of people needed to complement the existing innovation team and that it is extremely helpful in the creation of the position descriptions that begin an effective recruitment process.


All too often, companies do not appreciate the special qualities needed in a corporate innovation team. They put people onto the team for various reasons that have little to do with the team’s mission or what the team requires to fill its gaps. In many circumstances, a company has no formal idea of how its corporate innovation team is constituted with respect to the jobs it needs to do, the roles required to do those jobs, and the proficiencies needed to fulfill those roles.

The approach outlined here has shown to be effective in taking a diverse group of people with varying skills and experience and turn them into an optimally performing organization by recognizing the roles they are filling and recruiting the right people to fill in the gaps and complement the existing team.

There are numerous additional items that are extremely important in building an optimally performing innovation organization that have not been addressed in this article. Some of these include:

  • Existing team – There is always an existing team that has been constituted through both purposeful and ad-hoc, historical actions. This team consists of real people with existing proficiencies. Figuring out where the gaps are and how to complement the existing team is the most important thing that the team leader needs to do.
  • Proficiencies of real individuals – The proficiencies of real people are what connect individuals to the proficiencies needed by the innovation team to get its jobs done. Determining the level of a specific proficiency of an individual is critical to team composition.
  • Loading factors – The group itself has a loading factor – it is expected to deliver a certain number of well-developed opportunities per unit time. Individuals also have a loading factor, there is always time being spent on other jobs they are doing.
  • Position Descriptions – Companies typically constrain how positions can be written up and ‘advertised’, the levels and titles of positions, etc. These constraints can typically be resisted to some extent but they also represent an aspect of corporate culture and need to be considered.

For more information on the framework and tools used to turn your central innovation group into an Optimally Performing Organization, please contact us at Inovo.

To get more information, please let us know how to contact you

[1] The central innovation group, at the corporate level, is one that reports to the C-level of the company and not to any specific business. For large enough companies consisting of multiple business units, a business unit can itself have its own central innovation group.



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