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Smith Business Insight Podcast | Series 2 . Episode 5 Teams Work

Innovating Teams

Smith Business Insight Podcast

Innovation teams have jumped from tech firms to general organizations that need to find creative responses to rapid-fire change. What makes them special?


It’s been said that innovation is a team sport. If that’s the case, you want teams optimized for innovation: people willing and able to take on multiple roles, comfortable living with creative friction and flourishing in 360-degree feedback. That’s a tall task. With these types of innovation teams growing in popularity, what can we learn about how they work cohesively?

This episode, our guest is Nuša Fain, an assistant professor at Smith School of Business, where she specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation management. She is also Director of Smith’s Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

Nuša Fain is joined in conversation by host Meredith Dault. 

Also this episode, Smith Business Insight’s Alan Morantz looks at what the evidence shows about shared leadership. His segment cites the following research:

Sanfuentes et al; What lies beneath resilience: Analyzing the affective-relational basis of shared leadership in the Chilean miners’ catastrophe, Leadership, 2021, Vol. 17(3) 255–277

Robert, Lionel P. and Sangseok, You; Are You Satisfied Yet? Shared Leadership, Individual Trust, Autonomy, and Satisfaction in Virtual Teams, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, Volume 69, Issue 4, April 2018, 503-513

Aube, C. et al; Flow Experience in Teams: The Role of Shared Leadership, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2018, Vol. 23, No. 2, 198–206    

Sinha, R. et al; Shared leadership and relationship conflict in teams: The moderating role of team power base diversity, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Volume 42, Issue 5, June 2021, 649-667 



Meredith Dault: If it's true that innovation is a team sport, and let's face it, we've all heard that before, then what kind of team members do you have to pull together to get the job done? People, I venture to say, who are perfectly happy living in the grey zone. People who understand the importance of psychological safety, but also get that you need a healthy dose of creative friction. People who appreciate diverse perspectives, but not at the expense of productive collaboration. And people who are perfectly comfortable as shapeshifters, leading the team one day, following the next, and even mentoring or sharing leadership.

Not everyone is comfortable living in this grey zone. But even if you're not, there are lessons here for teams of all stripes. And that's why today, in this fifth and final episode of TEAMS Work, we are talking about the benefits and challenges of innovation teams. We’ll also be asking the question, Do too many cooks really spoil the broth?

I'm Meredith Dault. And I'm your host for this series of podcasts brought to you by Smith School of Business at Queen's University. Stay tuned for the answer.


01:16: MD: Nuša Fain wears a lot of different hats, each one requiring a different sort of leadership. She's an assistant professor at Smith School of Business, where she specializes in entrepreneurship and innovation management. She's also the Director of Smith's Master of Management Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

She has a whack of consulting experience in a diversity of sectors, including oil and gas, manufacturing and retail. And on top of everything else, she holds a PhD in mechanical engineering. If you were paying attention, you will have noticed that the word innovation comes up a lot in Nuša Fain's bio. So I invited her to the studio for a chat about innovation teams. I started by asking her how innovation teams differ from other types of teams.

Nuša Fain: So innovation is always about creating something new. And these teams are always brought together to solve a particular problem with a new solution. So they're not business as usual kind of teams that work together all the time. They're brought together with a specific purpose to innovate. And they're often brought together across different functions, sometimes even from outside of the company. So open innovation has been a trend in the past years where companies innovate together for a better outcome.

MD: So they're not actually things that emerge organically. You would have somebody deciding to put this group of people together?

NF: Yes, so innovation teams are always brought together to create new things. Nowadays, companies are looking at actually building innovation teams. Traditionally, those teams came from R&D, where innovation and doing new things, research and development, that was at the core of what those teams did.

But now, even more traditional organizations are acknowledging that innovation is needed because they need to adapt to the new environments. Otherwise, they will not survive. And so they are now bringing teams together for specific projects to create something new, innovative that will help them grow in the environment they're playing in.

03:10: MD: So why do you think companies are seeing the value of these kinds of innovation teams?

NF: So the world has changed a lot. Just think about the past three years of where we've gone and where we've come to. And technology is expanding things that we can do. And so because the world is changing so rapidly, companies and organizations need to change with them. And therefore, innovation teams.

So people with soft skills of being able to create, being able to think differently, being able to engage with each other, to create new things that are potentially not something that one would think of on their own, those are the things that help companies survive. And so innovation teams are now becoming part of business as usual, funnily enough, because otherwise the company will go out of business.

MD: And are they generally brought together to solve a short project and then dissolved in your experience? Or are they kind of like, oh, here's our innovation team. They're always together over here.

NF: So there's a couple of ways. So often, they are brought in in more traditional organizations, brought together on projects. Nowadays, there's two sets of projects, yes, a problem we need to solve, so create something new. But also so-called lighthouse projects, where they need to kind of do a long-term change. And that takes time.

So those teams are brought together for a longer period of time. They're typically cross-functional, with very specific skills that will solve that wicked problem, as they call it, because it will make a really big change to the organization and potentially create impact outside of the organization as well.

MD: Got it. OK, so then we mentioned skills. What kind of skills?

NF: So one, creativity is a starting point. We always kind of put creativity and innovation together. The other piece is people orientation. Because they need to be able to work with people that have very different skills from their own. So from the perspective of cross-functional teams, you might get a mechanical engineer, a marketing person, a sales person, a finance person in the room to innovate on a wicked problem.

And therefore, they need to be able to communicate. They need to be able to connect with the people. But at the same time, they need to be able to see what they contribute and stop at that point in time because then the contribution comes from another skill. And that, all together, brings a bigger outcome than if they would just do it separately.

05: 32: MD: OK, so we'll get to those different skillsets and how they touch on each other. But in the short term, you've got all these people with all these different skills who don't necessarily work the same way. How do we ensure that those kinds of teams thrive? How do we move them forward in a positive way?

NF: So having a really clear set of what the expected outcome is and what each person should be contributing is really key. So think about it from the perspective of whenever we build a project, we build a business case for it that gets a sponsorship from somewhere. And then it pushes through as a regular business as usual project.

Here, that business case also has to do with how the team operates. So we build a team charter or a team business case, where everybody commits to what the mission of the team is, how we will work together, and why we are working in that particular way. And that enables kind of a commitment from everybody from the team.

And also, it allows to fall back and say, if we have a conflict, we're able to go back. We agreed that we will resolve things in this kind of way, so let's take a step back from the project and talk about that.

MD: OK, because that must come up a bit if you have someone who's a marketing person and someone who's an engineer. And everyone has a different way of working. Those different styles must collide periodically.

NF: Yes, but in the innovation teams, that's the beauty of it. Because those collisions actually sometimes bring even better results. The thing that needs to happen is the person needs to be willing to listen. So they need to be able to say everything that they want to say, but then stop and listen to everything that the other person wants to say as well. And then a consensus can be reached about the way moving forward.

So there's an interesting concept of this red brick, right? So where people, when they work on innovation projects, they have a “must have” that they need to personally have in that particular solution that they're building. That's their red brick.

07:31: MD: What, what? Get into that again. Give me an example of a red brick.

NF: So look at it from the perspective, We're building something new. We're building a new product that will completely disrupt the way we do a particular thing within an organization. And an engineer needs to have really clear tech specifications for that. So that's their red brick. We can't get away with just a fluffy business case, where we say we will create X impact. We need to be able to show the engineer how that impact will be created and how we will build it. So that's their red brick.

For marketing, a red brick may be that I need to be able to engage with the customer before we build this thing. And therefore, we need to have a test and learning loop within that space of a process that we're doing. And therefore, we will move that forward as a must for the marketer.

And so those little red bricks from every single team member allow for everybody to have a stake in how they approach the project. And therefore, they're able to progress without a conflict because they agree that that red brick is everybody's commitment to this project.

08:38: MD: Oh, that's quite cool. OK, so the red brick is the non-negotiable for each team member. But then what happens. . . I think innovation teams are famous for the fact that people have to wear a lot of different hats at any given time. So how do you stand by your red brick? Because you're also switching hats all the time.

NF: That's the soft skill that comes in. So the soft skills around being creative, being able to communicate and engage, being able to challenge, but at the same time, be challenged. So that 360-degree feedback that we love to talk about, that's a thing that has to happen within innovation teams to thrive. And it also enables people to build the trust among the team.

So these teams can be brought together for a month if there's something really specific and fast they need to do. Or they can be teams that work together for years if there's a huge scale change that they're developing.

09:27: MD: OK, and now, can you talk about the unique challenges that the leader of an innovation team has to deal with? Again, it's probably going to be conflict or dealing with all these different personalities.

NF: So it's very interesting. And it can go both directions. Because sometimes people really buy into the mission and the wicked problem, and they get into it as a group. And therefore, they're all so passionate about it, they're pushing forward. They become friends. They live for that particular project that they're doing.

And that friendship can actually be disruptive to what they need to do because then they discuss everything. They talk about it. It becomes kind of a let's have a chat about everything. And therefore, the progress can be stifled. So from that perspective, the leader needs to be able to push along. So there needs to be very clear milestones set about what point in time we need to get where.

But then the opposite spectrum, everybody is also there with their own skillset. So think about the mechanical engineer, really rational thinking. Think about the marketing person, creative, customer oriented. So managing those — and that's where the red brick can come in again — managing those from a leadership perspective that the clashes of personalities and the way people think don't happen is a really important thing. And so engagement in kind of, you don't just sponsor the project. Engaging with the team throughout the project of innovation is really paramount for a leader.

11: 00: MD: So then thinking about what organizations can do, I mean, as you said at the beginning, I mean, it's pretty much we're kind of at innovate or. There's a lot of pressure on companies to come up with new ideas and to work fast. So what can organizations do, these days, to create the conditions for innovation teams to thrive or even to emerge, to thrive, to grow?

NF: So they need to allow people to have time to think about problems they want to solve as well. And a lot of innovative organizations already do that. So some dedicate a day where you can work on whatever you want. Other organizations, for example, allocate, You bring an idea, you get a certain amount of money, you get a certain amount of time. Go play with it. Show me what comes out of it.

And that builds engagement of employees that might not necessarily consider themselves innovative. But they see problems that they might want to solve for the organization. But it also really heavily engages the creative cells, the ones that innovation is a part of who they are.

MD: So that's the organization deciding that it's kind of going to be a policy. Have you heard about situations where employees are going to management and saying, Look, can you give me some money so I can try something? Where it comes from the employee side?

NF: Yes, it is happening, actually, more often. Where organizations are kind of tone deaf to that, I'm worried about those organizations as is. But still, their employees can actually go away and explore that with other open spaces.

So a big trend nowadays in innovation is this crowdsourcing, where you actually, they're platforms where companies post problems. And the crowd, so anybody that has access to that problem can provide solutions. So one aspect of that is open innovation, engaging people outside of your organization to solve the problems. But it has been a shift in the mindset of leadership to allow.

So there's idea banks. There are idea platforms that organizations employ internally where kind of periodically employees can come with ideas. And then every quarter or every half year, depending on how progressive the organization is, they look into that. And they prioritize the ideas and allow the employees to solve their problems, the ones that they've identified. So there is a shift towards allowing employees to ideate, even in more traditional spaces.

13:32: MD: So lastly, I want to talk about shared team leadership, so where leadership responsibilities are kind of spread out amongst a group of people. Are innovation teams designed to work that way? And what does that look like?

NF: So it's a really interesting concept. And when you think about it, it's been happening throughout. Yes, there's always somebody that is appointed a leader or a sponsor, somebody that manages a team. But often, depending on the size of the team as well, people come together, because they have different skills, they contribute different views. And often, they take ownership of that project together.

And that's ultimately what shared leadership is. So you bring different skills towards a common vision. And therefore, you work together, rather than in a hierarchical order, to solve that particular problem. And I think, in all honesty, innovation teams are bound to work in that kind of way because they're brought together functionally.

Yes, they have a sponsor. But the team is the one solving the problem. And therefore, they contribute their different expertise. And from there on, they take leadership during different parts in time.

So for example, at the starting point, where you kind of need to validate who your customer is, what their needs are, if you're doing user-centered approaches, marketing will inevitably take a more leadership role in that space because they have the skillset and knowledge around that. But as we come down to designing the product, prototyping, doing the testing of particular skill, the mechanical engineer or a designer might take that particular role of leadership. But together, to finalize and commercialize, they all come together towards that same vision.

15:12: MD: But what about the question of decision paralysis or places where people can get roadblocked if nobody is saying I'm in charge here, let's move this forward?

NF: So traditionally, that would be the sponsor. But in an innovation team, one of the softer skills that is really important is kind of that level of control, where we say, Stop, let's decide and move forward. And most of the innovation processes are scheduled in that kind of way. You do an activity, you make a decision, you move onwards.

And if that is. . . remember, we talked about the team contract at the start. That is the part of how we decide to work together, that is the way we go on. And we stop, there's a stage, there's a gate. At the gate, we make a decision and move forward. And there's always a timeline to it because otherwise, the projects, you're right, can go and spin out of control, can explode in scope and last for years, where the world has changed so much, and they become irrelevant.

So really sticking to that decision making and agreeing who makes a decision at that point. So having the starting consensus of how we approach the project and the innovation is really key.

16: 24: MD: That's really fantastic. Any final thoughts for companies who might be thinking about implementing innovation teams in their organizations or employees who are interested in pushing it forward as an idea?

NF: Give people a bit of time. And make it a formal way that they can engage with you and show you how they are proposing to solve problems that they encounter because that creates two things. You improve as an organization. And two, you get more buy-in from the employee and the chance of them sticking around and working with you are much better. And therefore, the retention and the company culture can grow with that as well.

MD: That's excellent, fantastic advice. Thank you very much, Nuša, for your time today.

NF: Thank you for having me.


MD: And now here's my colleague, Alan Morantz, who will show you the evidence about the pros and cons of shared leadership.

17: 23: Alan Morantz: In 2010, the world was absorbed by the dramatic rescue of 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine 700 metres below ground. Over the course of 69 days, we learned about the lives of the miners and their families, lax safety precautions, and the technical challenges of getting to the men.

But this was a team leadership story as well. Before the world fell in, the miners were part of a pretty standard hierarchical team led by an authoritarian shift supervisor. Once they were sealed off and forced into an emotional pressure cooker, the team stuck together but in a much different form. For one, the supervisor abdicated his authority. And the miners opted to share leadership according to each other’s strengths. They made decisions on scarce resources democratically and shared authority over the management of tasks and conflicts. Years later, commentators pointed to this form of distributed leadership as a key factor in all the miners surviving the two-month ordeal.

In the Chilean mine disaster, shared leadership arose out of the need for survival. But it has certainly been practised by teams in all sorts of organizations and run-of-the-mill projects. Shared leadership simply refers to the informal process in which a variety of people play a role in the collective leadership of the team. Team members recognize each other's leadership influence as they go about setting goals, deciding how resources are used, completing tasks, and assessing performance.

Do teams perform well under shared leadership? If you believe a stack of studies, yes indeed. Teams with a dynamic approach to leadership — from innovation teams to project or healthcare teams — report higher team-level performance benefits than those based on traditional hierarchical structure. There’s higher team member satisfaction and trust and greater engagement, particularly for virtual teams.

Teams led by multiple leaders have been shown to turn out higher quality work with fewer errors, especially when members perceive that the work is complex.

We at Smith Business Insight recently wrote about research in a merchant ship environment showing that teams with higher levels of shared transformational leadership displayed higher level of occupational safety behaviours.

Shared leadership has even been shown to create the conditions for the elusive flow experience, the psychological state that influences motivation, perseverance, creativity, and performance.

This seems to be a good news story across the board, doesn’t it? Well maybe not. Experts who study power dynamics question the assumption that under multiple informal leaders there are fewer interpersonal conflicts. Isn’t it just as likely that shared leadership can be an arena for turf wars? And what about the saying, Too many cooks spoil the broth?

Australian researchers recently looked at this very question. Their study of 70 project-based teams paints a much more nuanced view of interpersonal conflicts under shared leadership. They found that it really depends on the leaders’ source of power and how they informally influence their colleagues. 

There are many potential power sources in an organization; these researchers identified and tested nine. Things like expertise, inside information, likeability, position in the hierarchy, rewards, need for approval.

The researchers found that shared leadership translates into great team performance when people in the leadership roles have diverse sources of power or influence. Interpersonal conflict is significantly lower when leaders can differentiate their special sauce as they share leadership with peers. If they are all known to have inside information or are all likeable, there’s less clarity and demarcation and greater chance for one-upmanship and misunderstandings.

I’m sure there will be many more studies published in the coming years adding even more nuance to the shared leadership story. For all its proven benefits — and there are many, just ask the Chilean miners — shared leadership is not a slam dunk to build cohesive or harmonious teams. Sometimes formalized leadership structures may be more productive, especially when peer-level leaders show signs of being incompatible with one another.

But we should welcome any and all efforts to re-imagine the nature of leadership and followership, be it shared leadership, servant leadership or any othership. The image of the lone hero leader at the top is great for spinning myths. At this point in time, the working world needs a lot more than myths.

I’m Alan Morantz, and I just showed you the evidence.


23:33: MD: And there you have it. With those wise words from Alan, we have reached the end of the TEAMS Work podcast series. I want to thank Alan along with Julia Lefebvre and Iryna Vivchar for their behind the scenes support in putting this episode together. I want to thank Bill Cassidy for his editing support, and Andrew Johnson for his general technical support. If you want more insights for business leaders, check out Smith Business Insight at

Thanks again for listening.