The Right Stuff – A Look Inside Innovative Teams

What does it mean to truly “innovative?” The term has become a cliché with so many ordinary products being advertised as innovative. Even the construction mess at the Atlanta Hartsfield airport has a billboard that advertises “innovation at work.” Really!?

Innovation is one of those words that most companies talk about, but its true meaning is often elusive. Ask executives across the organization what it is and why it’s important, and you’ll get a different answer each time. If you strip away the marketing B.S., an innovation aimed at optimizing revenue growth is about solving a problem with great ideas that are creative and unique in nature, resulting in tangible outcomes that customers find valuable and worth buying – more so than what the competition offers.

To innovate one must have an intimate understanding of customer needs, desires, and frustrations. The primary focus should be on the customer rather than being about profit potential, product engineering, or emotional ideas tied to a particular leader. The best, most innovative ideas come in response to an important problem to solve that matter to customers. Innovation only occurs after the idea is implemented and benefits are realized.


A recent example of a truly innovative product is Amazon Echo, which uses a combination of natural language processing and artificial intelligence (AI) to engage customers in a two-way dialogue. Though it took several years of experimenting and learning to develop, a mix of innovative individuals came together to ask the right questions, visualize what was possible, discover novel possibilities, and test many combinations of potential solutions for Echo to become a blockbuster product. There are currently over 10,000 “skills” available that enable users to talk to and listen to Alexa, the AI voice of Echo. Did Amazon get lucky with the right mix of innovative talent? Or did it go with “The Right Stuff” when forming teams among qualified individuals who possessed desired characteristics?

Imagine how Thomas Edison’s team of innovators at Menlo Park, NJ in the late 19th century came together to invent and apply for over 400 U.S. patents, starting with the phonograph in 1877. Of more recent times, how Jony Ivey and his team of innovators at Apple disrupted the mobile phone industry and dethroned Nokia with its iPhone launch in 2007. Make no mistake, innovation is a “team sport.” It requires a mix of innovative talents among those involved. Whereas some are good at visioning, others excel at experimenting and designing solutions. Undoubtedly a combination of many innovative talents came together among teams at Amazon, Apple, and GE to achieve competitive marketplace advantage.

Problem Statement

Simply put, most organizations fail miserably at innovation. They waste money, time, and staff in going after ideas that masquerade as “innovative,” but, in reality, fall far short of the definition given above. For the vast majority, especially among established companies, leaders too often are clueless when it comes to grasping all that is required to enable the proper mindset, approach, and discipline to innovate in a timely manner. In fact, 84% of global executives believe innovation is “extremely important,” but only 6% are satisfied with their innovation performance, according to the global consulting firm McKinsey &Company. Fahrenheit 212’s co-founder Mark Payne cites that innovation failure rates range anywhere between 60 to 90% depending on the industry and product type.

One explanation to why so many organizations fail at innovation is the people aspect, i.e., those who are directly involved in innovation leadership and project teams. Analogous to fielding a baseball team, where a variety of skills need to harmonize across nine positions, it takes a group effort to win. In business, questions arise as to whether the right individuals with the proper mindset and innovation skills are on the team. Successful baseball teams know how to draft and develop talent better than their rivals. So too must company leaders have the right mix of talent if they expect to succeed at innovation.

Innovative companies like Amazon, Apple, and GE tend to be all over this need. Even more so, many of the smaller start-up companies that rely on innovation to outcompete their larger rivals are very selective in who gets assigned to projects. They simply cannot afford to waste time or resources while innovating. Besides having highly-capable contributors, knowing how to field a complete team is even more critical to success.

“The Right Stuff”

This paper examines what it takes to be truly innovative, what’s required to field a winning team. It introduces new factors aimed at boosting innovative horsepower at the individual and team level. As previously noted, the human element is critically important to make innovation work; that is, to connect, empathize, ideate, collaborate, challenge, build, and come together to produce successful outcomes.

Three different approaches follow that attempt to measure innovative talents, tendencies, and behaviors among individuals. This includes Myer Briggs®, StrengthFinders™, and Innovation Styles®.

Myers Briggs®

Dr. Chris DeArmitt in his recent book “Innovation Abyss” argues that our DNA plays a central role in what makes us innovate; how some individuals are especially gifted with innate qualities beyond others; how they inherit this ability to think differently, ask the right questions, and know what to do when it comes to being innovative. The “gifted” ones tend to possess three key qualities that make them innovative; i.e., the ability to think creatively, develop technical expertise, and learn business acumen better than most other people.

The Myers Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) personality test is based on analytical psychology from Swiss psychiatrist Carl Yung (1875-1961). It is a tool that provides insight into how we think, solve problems, and prefer to spend our time. Based on Dr. DeArmitt’s research and credibility as an accomplished innovator, he draws a strong correlation between the “NT” personality type (“Intuition-plus Thinkers”) and the ability to generate innovative outcomes. He explains how individuals positioned at the upper third of the Rainmaker Index (“NT” profile derived from MBTI) accounted for 95 times more profit than those in the lower third, based on findings from a 10-year longitudinal study across 267 projects at Dow Chemical.



Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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  1. You brought out many excellent points that you also summarized well. From what we inherit, to what we develop, our capacity to be innovative is within. Given a mix of opportunity and training becoming innovative is possible. The potential benefits to organizations is incalculable.

    • Thanks Larry. One can only hope (and offer to help) that organizations that truly want to make an impact while innovating will learn from their shortcomings, adjust, and achieve greater success in being able to link solutions to ideas to problem solving from a customers’ PoV.

  2. Chris, good points as well. The validity of the MBTI methodology has been challenge by some scholars. They argue that there is not enough evidence to support the theory around MBTI personality traits.

    Take the NT personality type (“intuitive–thinking”), which, according to Meyer Briggs, is associated with the following role variants: Architect (INTP), Field Marshal (ENTJ), Inventor (ENTP), and The Mastermind (INTJ). While there may likely be a correlation between the MBTI score and these roles, which may seem logical to some, greater evidence is needed to support these arguments. IMO: The theories behind Meyer Briggs still have value, but with an unknown margin of error when predicting future performance/behavior. The MBTI type is one of several variables available to leadership when deciding how best to staff innovation roles, what to look for in getting to “The Right Stuff.” 🙂

  3. Good points. I have no problems with MBTI. It’s how some are using it that concerns me. There are a lot of assumptions made for MBTI and not that many know what those assumptions are.

    Each assessment has assumptions. To use assessments to their full potential we need to know what those assumptions are.