Business Innovation and the I in Team

Innovation counselors and organizational consultants alike extol teamwork as the key to shared success. For projects or new initiatives to succeed, it’s said all involved have to be “on the same page” or working together as one.

But does that include innovation initiatives in the corporate environment?

Actually, look at the basketball court for comparison.

This month, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – each highly successful and well-paid athletes – gave up a chance at millions more in salary to play together on the Miami Heat. Their belief: By bringing their individual skills together on the basketball court, they had a better shot at winning an NBA title.

Then there’s the tale of Michael Jordan. Some years ago, an assistant coach on the Chicago Bulls chided the star player putting on a stellar – albeit individual – performance in a team win. The coach stated the now famous line, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

The statement has come to epitomize the place of players in a team performance. For a team to be successful, the thinking goes, there is no individual.

To the contrary, there are many “I’s” in team. Individual initiative is the hallmark of successful innovation. Certainly, everyone must collaborate in the push toward a common goal. Each has his or her place in the process: One person or group performs market research, another crunches the numbers, a third may draft a marketing plan to support the product or initiative.

Then there’s the heterogeneous nature of corporate teams. Aside from differing skill sets, these individuals bring unique characteristics – their own outlook, style or points of view – that help place their stamp on the project. In my experience, homogeneity that leaves the “I” behind also jettisons the desired results. A diverse team is a more productive team.

Each is working toward that common goal. But each also is a soloist – even within the smaller subset of the individual teams. Each knows his or her brand is on the line, ready potentially to shine with success, or tarnish with failure.

It’s been said there are two types of successful people in the business world: Those who are entrepreneurs, and those who think like entrepreneurs. The “I’s” among us fall into the latter group. They are leaders, champions of the cause. They’re passionate and willing to stick their necks out for a cause or to deliver on a project or promise.

They represent the best that individualism in the corporate environment has to offer. They take ownership and focus their individual efforts on their part in accountability and ROI .

They eschew the resistance common with team-think. They’re willing to speak up and speak out. They put their beliefs out there – and the whole is better for it.

A team can be full of these people. Team managers (Chief Innovation Officers or Champions tasked with creating the teams to pursue innovation initiatives) must seek them out. They should look for the heterogeneous characteristics that bring diversity in the ideation process. With such variety across the teams that comprise innovation (including R&D, Customer Service, Marketing, F&A, and the like), there’s no missing dimension.

The result promises to be more complete.

Once his assistant coach spoke that famous line, Michael Jordan’s response was even more telling: “There’s an ‘I’ in ‘win”

By Robert Brands with Jeff Zbar

Robert Brands, professional speaker and the founder of, and the author of “Robert’s Rules of Innovation“: A 10-Step Program for Corporate Survival, with Martin Kleinman,  published March, 2010 by Wiley.