We all recognize the dream team in sport. A great example being Team GB’s women’s hockey team who won gold at the 2016 Olympics. Even if you don’t like hockey, there was something powerful about the way the team was so much more than the sum of each individual player.

In sport, there are players who can deliver remarkable results on the pitch, whether it means dribbling around lots of players, scoring incredible goals or making impossible saves. In the innovative business teams that OE Cam works with, we use the term ‘Disruptive Talent’ to describe highly capable individuals whose out-of-the-box thinking and behaviour disrupts existing working structures and/or traditional markets. They give those organisations a competitive edge in the same way those remarkable players do on the sport’s pitch. However, just like sport – you need a range of abilities co-ordinated effectively to get the ultimate result.

they are typically very quick to innovate to find a solution for a client or customer but they are slow to innovate when it is not urgent

Innovation is not just about hi-tech start-ups… Innovation in Professional Services

Innovation can range from marginal improvements to creating radically new ways of doing things. Much has been written about the way that tech-driven companies do things (e.g. Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Uber). Whilst relevant for some organisations, for others where innovation means doing things differently and not involving technology, these examples are unhelpful.

A particular interest of mine is supporting organisations where history plays a big part of the brand and culture. They can be hierarchical or egalitarian organisations, product or services focussed. They are typically very quick to innovate to find a solution for a client or customer but they are slow to innovate when it is not urgent. E.g. it may be a process improvement which will lead to improvements in quality or speed but it does not have a specific deadline because there are no clients asking for it now. Traditional organisations such as many Professional Services firms often like ‘tried and tested’ because they know what they are getting and the level of emotional buy-in required to change existing ways of doing things is much greater than when you are starting from scratch.

I work with these organisations to put together the Innovation Dream Team with a clear focus on what they want to achieve and the right combination of people to allow each individual to play to his or her strengths. When the will, capability and flexibility are there, building the team usually happens quickly and everyone feels good about that as they deliver more effectively. However, tackling the dichotomy of being capable of innovating in urgent situations but incapable of even thinking to innovate when something is not urgent is more complex. To return to the sports metaphor – they are great on the pitch but don’t do the work required off the pitch. In professional services this may be great client-facing innovation but not finding the time or the will to work through the difficult and non urgent opportunities to innovate.

“We want to be more innovative!” (but not really?)

Our research strongly suggests that the leadership team plays a critical role in influencing and building a culture of innovation. Innovation cannot be ordained – it needs the top team to go beyond words to adopt more of an enabling, envisioning and energising role. A common scenario I see is where, the top team is asking for innovation but is actually (unintentionally) discouraging it through verbal and non-verbal messaging. For example, I was working with an organisation recently going through transformational change and members of the Executive were making sarcastic comments about anything that was non-urgent.

the top team is asking for innovation but is actually (unintentionally) discouraging it through verbal and non-verbal messaging

In sporting terms that would be similar to the coach making a sarcastic comment about a player getting advice on training and nutrition. They were initially quite defensive when I pointed it out to them, as it was a blind spot. However, I gave them a number of examples and by the end of the session they were catching themselves (and each other) just before making the sarcastic comment. They are now much more mindful about it and it has been noted by their direct reports.

Work out what ‘Innovation’ means for you

Innovation comes in different shapes and sizes – it is not just about transformation, it is also about improvement and modernisation. It usually requires teams – some teams enable it and others disable it and there are many teams in between the two extremes.

For more traditional organisations, innovation is often very different from the radical technology organisations and my advice is to start by understanding these variables in depth rather than starting by trying to copy high tech organisations if they are intrinsically different to you. You then focus on what the dream has to deliver, the mix of people required and of course, for the more radical end of innovation, whether you need disruptive talent to springboard you to getting there.