Four reasons teams fail to innovate

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In a follow-up to her piece in our last issueLiz Gerrish, technical programme manager and senior optical engineer at Wilcox Industries, provides further leadership perspective from being a woman in STEM





Even though engineers have instant access to significantly more information through digital media than they did in the past, teams still may not be able to create innovate solutions.

As a young, female engineer in optics, in some groups I have found it difficult to hold the floor at meetings, or to get my teammates headed in the same direction. Sometimes I have made a point that is ignored, only to have one of my male colleagues repeat the exact words I just said.

However, in other groups I have been exhilarated by the exchange of ideas. This led me to question: what allows some teams to consistently produce the cutting-edge ideas, while others struggle to execute simple tasks?

My personal experience leading teams and research in group dynamics shows that there are are four key things that prevent teams from innovating, even though they may have unlimited resources at their disposal:

  1. Not enough time
  2. Low group emotional IQ;
  3. Lack of diversity; and
  4. No personal stake.

While these topics may seem out of place in high-tech sectors like optics, a surprising number of firms minimise the importance of soft skills and risk, restricting the level of innovation that their organisation is capable of. 

1. Not enough time

It has been my privilege to work with some fabulous teams over the years and it made me wonder what sets them apart from groups of equally talented engineers that just didn’t jive quite the same way. According to Franklin Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and a well-known leadership consultant, a highly functioning team is a group that produces a higher level of innovation than individual contributors would working on their own.

Research in the 1960s by Tuckman identified four stages that a group must go through to become a highly functioning team. Further studies by Katzenbach and Douglas show that cycling through these stages is not instantaneous, and that success is based on the interpersonal skills of each team member. Even though the speed at which teams communicate – and that tasks are expected to be accomplished with – has multiplied exponentially in the digital age, the time it takes for individuals to become a cohesive unit has not changed.

2. Low group emotional IQ

We can share data instantly across the globe and connect digitally to remote locations of the earth, but some people simply have clashing personalities and may never be able to form a cohesive team. A recent article titled Hiring for Emotional Intelligence by Bielaszka-DuVernay says that emotional intelligence accounts for up to 69 per cent of an employee’s success. However, interpersonal skills are often undervalued and overlooked during the hiring process, especially in STEM sectors. Some groups will never be able to accomplish the task, let alone produce an innovative idea. Good news – it’s not you personally, it’s probably the aggregate of the group’s emotional IQ that is dragging down its productivity.

3. Lack of diversity

I’m not sure if it’s the same for my fellow peers, but I am frequently ‘the only’ in a group: the only woman; the only parent; the only optical engineer; the only person with a sense of humour. As frequently as I’ve found myself ‘the only’ in the group, I’ve noticed a correlation with one-sided group discussions. Intuitively, it makes sense that engineers and technologists who have gone to similar schools, been taught by the similar teachers, and worked at similar companies, would become similar thinkers.

One especially effective method of counteracting group think is to choose team members with diverse experiences and perspectives. A 2009 study, referred to in the Harvard Business Review article ‘Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable – and That’s Why They Perform Better’, shows that organisations with diverse leadership are more profitable and that diverse teams are three times as likely to produce a correct answer as their homogeneous counterparts. Creating a diverse group results in a team that views problems with new dimensions, is unafraid to point out problems, and will produce better results.

4. No personal stake

Regardless of the level of technology that a group is developing, according to Tuckman’s group theory, every team must have a clear vision of what is being accomplished and why it is important. It is not uncommon for engineers to view brainstorming, team meetings and work groups as supplemental to their daily responsibilities. I have found that, before team members are willing to collaborate freely, their time and attention must be committed to the purpose of the group. When team members believe they are participating in meaningful activities, they are more likely to be engaged and have a personal stake in it.

Technology is offering teams more ways to communicate and speeding up the flow of ideas. However, the interpersonal stages required for the formation of highly functional teams have not changed. The stages that a team must undergo to become highly functional cannot be rushed. Technical companies can increase the success of using teams to create innovative solutions by giving groups time to form, hiring engineers that are technically and emotionally competent, promoting diversity and creating clear and compelling team goals. 

  • Prior to her current position at Wilcox Industries, Liz Gerrish was a key account manager for Zemax, where she created a global key account sales programme. In 2017, she completed a MSc in management and leadership from Western Governors University, with a thesis focused on female leadership in male-dominated industries. She also holds a bachelor of science in physics from the University of Washington and a certificate in Gender Mainstreaming from United Nations Women.