The Two Traits of Highly Innovative Teams

Innovation is a crucial aspect of any successful organization. Companies that fail to innovate risk becoming stagnant and losing their competitive edge. Two key factors that drive innovation are cognitively diverse and psychologically safe teams.

These two traits are what highly innovative companies like  Google, Pixar, Apple, Cirque Du Soleil, IDEO have in common. They achieve this by hiring for cognitive diversity and creating an environment where people can speak their minds freely without fear of being criticized.

From HBR:

An analysis of 150 senior teams showed that teams who solve problems the fastest tend to be cognitively diverse. But this isn’t always true — sometimes, those teams still struggle. So what separates the best teams from the rest? It turns out that it’s a combination of cognitive diversity and psychological safety. Teams high in both traits show curious and encouraging behavior, and also the level of forcefulness and experimentation needed to keep their momentum. Teams low in either trait were either too combative (if they were high in cognitive diversity and low in psychological safety) or too prone to groupthink (if the reverse was true).

Cognitive diversity refers to the presence of different perspectives, ideas, and approaches within a team. When a team is composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking, they are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems. Teams solve problems faster when they’re more cognitively diverse. This is because they are able to draw on a broader range of perspectives and ideas, leading to more creative and innovative solutions. Another way to look at cognitive diversity is this: where all think alike nobody thinks very much.

Psychological safety is another important feature of highly innovative teams. This refers to the ability of team members to speak their minds freely without fear of negative consequences such as being criticized or ostracized. When team members feel safe to express their ideas, they are more likely to share their unique perspectives and challenge the status quo. This can lead to more innovation as it allows for the exploration of new ideas and approaches.

Both cognitive diversity and psychological safety are essential for creating a culture of innovation within a team. When these two features are present, team members are more likely to challenge assumptions, take risks, and collaborate effectively. This can lead to breakthrough ideas and solutions that would not have been possible with a more homogeneous or less safe team environment.

traits of highly innovative teams

For example, Google has become well-known for its focus on cognitive diversity and psychological safety in its teams. The company actively seeks out employees with diverse backgrounds and experiences and encourages team members to share their ideas and opinions freely without fear of repercussions. This has led to some of the company’s most successful innovations, such as the development of the Google Maps application and the self-driving car project.

Another example is Pixar, which has a culture of open communication and collaboration that fosters creativity and innovation. The company has a “Braintrust” process in which team members are encouraged to give candid feedback on each other’s work. This process creates a sense of psychological safety by allowing team members to openly share their thoughts and ideas without fear of negative consequences. As a result, Pixar has produced some of the most successful and innovative animated films in history.

Bottom line: Cognitive diversity and psychological safety are two key features of highly innovative teams. When a team is composed of individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and when team members feel safe to express their ideas and opinions, they are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to problems. Companies that prioritize these features in their teams can create a culture of innovation that drives their success and helps them stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing business landscape.