When we innovate, our focus is often on the problem we’re attempting to solve or the tools that can help us develop a solution. We often overlook the most important success factor: the people who we are innovating with. Without the right people with the right skills and attitudes, it is impossible to successfully innovate.
This is certainly true for public and social innovation labs. These labs convene various partners and support them in developing new solutions to complex problems. For example, MaRS Solutions Lab worked together with The Rockefeller Foundation, Starbucks and LeadersUp, to develop new solutions to youth employment in the United States. While innovation is our core business, successfully running an innovation lab starts with having a great core team.
How do you build a good innovation lab team? Let me share some lessons on the people factor of innovation.
The first lesson is that the most important management decision you will make is who to hire. Good recruitment and getting the right mix of people on your team is a key success factor. During my 12 years at Kennisland—and now at MaRS Solutions Lab—hiring was the only decision I never delegated. But I don’t make hiring decisions on my own, either. Getting different perspectives on candidates is crucial—and not just those of your senior staff. I recommend asking your assistant or the most junior person on the team for their input. They often provide useful and surprising insights.
What are some of the skills to look for when hiring people who innovate and who can also help others to do so?
System thinkers with a hands-on mentality
They are a rare breed, but look for people who can see the big picture and who do not shy away from getting into the action. Innovation is both a long and a short game. Some people are analytically strong: they assess the problem, understand the system and will tell you what will happen in five years and even what needs to change. But ask them what to do about the problem tomorrow and they are likely to remain silent. Other people are very strong at getting a project off of the ground, making it happen and running it smoothly. But ask them to describe the system they are operating in and they fail.
Both of these skills are valuable, but people who innovate combine them. When hiring, I always look for signs of both qualities. For instance, I’ll ask candidates to analyze a problem and then I’ll ask them if they organized parties when they were high school students. You may find that many members of innovation lab teams have run their own businesses at some point in their lives. These people are a good fit not just because of their entrepreneurial spirit, but also because entrepreneurs are able to translate a system or market perspective to an individual product or action. Lab team members often have also had more than one career and have worked for larger organizations or government agencies. Many also served in restaurants while in college. Seek people with these kinds of career switches and ask them why they made them.
Combining passion and process
Innovation requires stamina. You will need to overcome many barriers, face resistance and deal with setbacks. If you’re not passionate you won’t be able to keep it up. At Kennisland, people were deeply passionate about their work. To be fair, that sometimes made them hard to manage. However, it also meant that they would keep going and would come up with unbelievably creative solutions. It just means that you may need to take a different leadership style that is more value driven and collaborative.
Although passion can take you a long way, for an effective changemaker it is not enough. I have seen many passionate activists who did not achieve impact because they were not good at process. They burnt their energy instead of strategically injecting it. People who successfully innovate can explain why they are doing what they are doing. They know what the process is toward impact at scale. In innovation labs, we often talk about process: how to organize the convening and collaboration of stakeholders and how to develop and prototype solutions. However, just as relying solely on passion is not wise, it is not good if people are only interested in process. You can be happy with a good user study, brainstorm or prototype, but it is only a means to an end.
Understand and speak multiple languages
It is often said that diversity is essential for innovation teams. This is true, but not only to get different perspectives on the team. Far more important is your team members’ abilities to connect with various users and stakeholders. People who can understand and speak multiple languages are key, whether it’s the language of the private and public sector, of community activists and academics, of people on the streets or of executives in boardrooms. At MaRS Solutions Lab, for example, we have a mathematician-turned-consultant, a social scientist-turned-entrepreneur and a pharmacist-turned-civil servant. They bring not only different perspectives, but also different connections and cultural contexts that we can learn from.
A final word on professional development
Finally, you want to look for people who are eager to learn and who have little fear of failing. Simply hiring good people will not do the trick. You need to take professional development seriously—and that means offering more than occasional training. With innovation, most learning takes places on the job anyway. My experience is that, in successful innovation labs, organizational strategy and professional development are closely aligned. In job interviews, I always ask candidates how working in the lab will help their personal ambitions in the long run and I try to make sure this stays aligned along the way. Try to challenge your team members just as they challenge you. It’s not easy—just as finding the right people is not easy. But who ever said innovation was easy? Without considering the people factor of innovation it is simply impossible.
Joeri van den Steenhoven
Joeri was VP of Systems Innovation and the Director of the MaRS Solutions Lab, a social innovation lab that aims to improve the lives of citizens and strengthen the resilience of communities in Canada. Before joining MaRS, he was the co-founder and CEO of Knowledgeland, one of the leading change labs in the Netherlands and Europe. He also worked as a director at the Young Foundation in the UK. See more…