Three Critical Elements for Building Innovative Teams

Building a startup offers the chance to work alongside people so passionate that they are willing to sacrifice professional certainty. That certainty sounds like “I’ll get my raise this year with a good performance review,” and “if I just put in the time I’ll get that promotion.”

Why sacrifice professional certainty?

In my experience, people will give up their sense of certainty to follow a belief that their world should change. And it’s when people come together to work around a common belief that extraordinary collaboration can take place.

In the book Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison, Sarah Miller Caldicott describes the power of collaboration through studying teamwork in the famous Menlo Park Laboratory, founded by Thomas Edison. Describing teamwork in Edison’s lab, Caldicott states:

“…[True collaboration] embraced both the uniqueness of the people who engaged in Edison’s team efforts as well as their deeper, shared experience in laboring toward a common purpose.” [1]

 Element One: Share a common purpose

The common purpose, (often referred to as an organization’s mission) described by Caldicott is the first and foremost element of building a team. A bond of shared purpose offers the strongest link for startup founders, just as it was for Edison’s team, and it can sustain the group through the toughest of times.

As a short break from the challenges of startup life, my startup cofounders and I recently had the opportunity to visit The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a team one afternoon. During this visit, we saw John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” one of my favorite paintings on display.

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley

Acquired from Boston Museum of Fine Arts Website (MFA.org) on February 13th, 2014

Copley’s painting shows the dramatic scene the moment before a shark takes a young swimmer’s leg. The victim of the attack is a cabin boy named Brook Watson who grew up to commission Copley to create the painting.

“Watson and the Shark” is a beautiful piece. What I appreciate most about Copley’s painting is the common determination displayed by the rescuers in the boat, each playing their part to save Watson from the attack.

Element Two: Empower unique talents

Just like Watson’s rescuers, individual members have to play a unique part in order to build an innovative team. To play that part effectively, a team should focus on empowering individuals to apply their own unique talents and strengths.

The concept of playing to people’s unique talents and strengths is simple, but it’s contrary to much of what we are taught in today’s world. For the most part, we’re all encouraged to improve on our weaknesses instead of identifying those ingrained and innate talents in each of us.

Fixing weaknesses isn’t the best way to develop a team capable of innovation. As Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton identify in their book Now, Discover Your Strengths:

“Most organizations take their employees’ strengths for granted and focus on minimizing their weaknesses. They become expert in those areas where their employees struggle, delicately rename these “skills gaps” or “areas of opportunity,” and then pack them off to training classes so that the weaknesses can be fixed.” [2]

Buckingham and Clifton go on to make the argument that—as learned through extensive research—truly successful people owe that success to “…their ability to discover their strengths and to organize their life so that these strengths can be applied.”

By working through the enormous challenge of innovating, individuals test and build on their talents, and have the opportunity to turn innate talent into actual strengths. The terms often used for this type of individual development is to be “refined by fire” or “battle tested,” and it’s the third critical element for team building.

Element Three: Overcome challenges together

A team that’s battle tested has individuals who have been through challenges and have learned to work together through these tests of strength and determination.

In the search for a group that overcame enormous and sustained challenges, there are few better examples than how British citizens stood up to the tyranny of Nazism during World War II. Their defiance sustained through devastating air raids on Britain by the Luftwaffe’s bombers. If fact, as the destruction sustained, it has been well documented  that the nation’s resolve to stand as one only increased.

Thankfully, a startup that is trying to innovate will not face the same challenges as British citizens had in World War II during the bombing of their cities. That being said, the impact of moving through tough times as a group cannot be understated, even if those challenges come from experiences such as bringing a new product to market or building a business around an innovative idea.


1. Sarah Miller Caldicott. Midnight Lunch: The Four Phases of Team Collaboration Success from Thomas Edison (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2012), 18.
2. Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton identify. Now, Discover Your Strengths (Gallup Press, 2013).