5 Psychological Traits of Highly Innovative Organizations

by Pete Foley

5 Psychological Traits of Highly Innovative Organizations

When creating an innovation team, we often put a lot of thought and effort into bringing the right functional expertise together. Making sure we have diverse marketing, design, engineering, product supply, finance, research and innovation working together early in the process is certainly smart. But for a team to deliver big, disruptive ideas that will have separation and longevity versus competition, focusing only on functional expertise is not enough.  We also need the right mix of personalities, of youth and experience, cognitive diversity, and need to hit the ‘sweet-spot’ between narrow and broad expertise.  Getting this mix right helps ensure not only good team dynamics, but also a team that naturally challenges itself, and balances speed of execution with an innate propensity to reach beyond the usual suspects, and strive for big, disruptive, game changing ideas. Of course, it’s much easier to get the right balance of technical capability than some of these other, sometimes more intangible traits. But tools like personality tests, together with identifying and bringing in analogical innovators and deep critical thinkers, and then wrapping the team in principles derived from the scientific method can help us to create high performing innovation teams that go beyond a simple, albeit essential mix of functional expertise.

But to do this consistently also requires thinking beyond individual teams. Who we can bring into an innovation team is obviously highly dependant upon our talent pool, and this is in turn dependant upon who we recruit, retain and develop within the broader organization.  But many companies struggle to recruit and develop ‘different’ or analogical thinkers. For example, analogical thinkers tend to be late bloomers, simply because they have many interests, and so often lack the narrow focus that delivers the early track record of success we look for in high achievers straight out of college.  We also tend to deselect people who don’t ‘fit the mold’, and a lot of corporate training is still designed to fill ‘gaps’ in performance, which risks further the talent pool, and/or weeding out the different. Even when a maverick slips through the net, many survive despite of, not because of the culture and reward system!  This is all quite understandable, as atypical people require more time and resource.  But in an innovation context, it’s hard to deliver disruptive innovation without cultivating and retaining some disruptive people, and organizations that do so will likely have a growing advantage as the pace of innovation increases.  I suspect that unintended homogenization is a contributing factor to why big companies can struggle to disrupt themselves, although there are obviously many other factors that tie the hands of incumbent market leaders.  At the end or this article, I’ll also share some anecdotes around my time at P&G, and how we tried, with varying levels of success, to manage this challenge. But first, a few general thoughts on how we can increase cognitive diversity in both organizations and teams, and use the scientific method to productively manage the creative tensions that, when harnessed effectively, can catalyze disruptive thinking.

  1. Cognitive Diversity. One of the main reasons for creating an innovation teamis to bring different ideas to the table. There is considerable data that suggests individuals often come up with more ideas alone than in teams, but there are also benefits to be derived from bringing together people with different expertise, perspective and thinking styles, especially if we want to develop detailed, robust innovations that will survive the journey from front to back end.  But all too often, when creating a team, we focus primarily on diverse expertise, but largely ignore diverse thinking styles. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s much easier to quantify expertise: we know who the finance expert is, but are probably less sure of who the analogical or critical thinkers are in an organization, especially if we lack direct experience with individuals.  Secondly, we all possess unconscious biases that push us towards collaborating with people who think in similar ways to ourselves. We’ve probably all recruited someone into a team because we liked working with them in the past, but that doesn’t always lead to the most effective teams.  But if we really want a more effective mix of thinking styles, there are a number of personality tests we can borrow from psychology to help us. I have previously written about OCEAN personality models, but more recently favor a variation of this, called HEXACO, which measures Humility, Emotionality, eXtraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Openness.  I dive deeper into this personality model later in this article, but as an example, agreeableness is an important, and somewhat counter intuitive trait we can leverage.  Teams where everyone is high in agreeableness tend to be fun and popular.  But this can also be a bit of a ‘feel good’ trap,  as they are often relatively unproductive.  They often lack someone to say, “stop, this isn’t good enough”, or to push the teams to look hard enough at potential issues or downsides early in the process, before momentum makes change more difficult than it needs to be.  Of course, balance is key, as too much negativity can be toxic, but too little, and we don’t challenge ourselves enough, or we defer tough, unpopular decisions and discussions, when sometimes an earlier course correction could have been easier, if not easy.
  2. T-Shaped Innovators and Analogical Thinkers.Really big ideas usually don’t come from experts in the field, and if they do, then it’s likely that they won’t be uniquely big or disruptive for long. If our group of experts has thought of it, then the competition’s experts probably have as well, or at least will do very soon.  ‘Inside’ experts tend to pull the pieces together at about the same time, and even revolutionary ideas often occur almost simultaneously amongst independent innovators exploring the same field.  Examples of this so called ‘multiple discovery’ abound, including calculus (Newton and Leibniz) the theory of evolution (Darwin and Wallace), and the telephone  (Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell).  The latter independently filed patents for the discovery of the telephone on the same day!  These are unusually big, brilliant innovations, but we also see similar ‘multiple discovery’ effects in more ‘everyday’ innovations, where ‘in-domain’ experts race along s-curves, evolving and optimizing in almost neck and neck races.  We only have to look at cell phones or 5G to see this in action.  But truly disrupting a category often requires jumping an s-curve, and deep but narrow knowledge can often not provide the broader knowledge needed to do this, but can actually get in the way. To paraphrase George Lakoff, if I say “don’t think of an elephant”, the first thing you think of is an elephant.  Deeply held knowledge drives us down familiar paths.  A surgeon is biased to see a surgical answer to the same problem that a physiotherapist will see an exercise solution to.  The more we know about a subject, the more likely we are to use that lens when looking at a problem. This doesn’t mean that we should abandon experts; far from it. An in-domain answer may well be the simplest one, and evolution and optimization are some of the most efficient and effective innovation pathways we have.  Indeed, disruptive innovation has become a buzzword, and the reality is that truly disruptive innovation is rare, difficult, and suffers high failure rates.  But I’d still argue that innovation teams need a mixture of domain experts together with broader, more analogical thinkers.  Sometimes referred to as T-shaped innovators or expert generalists, they bring a broader perspective to help make sure we aren’t missing a bigger, simpler idea that is not one of the usual suspects.  They know a lot of stuff about a lot of things, and so are good at seeing the potential to transfer ideas and innovations from one space to another, and are also good at facilitating communication between narrower domain experts within a team.  Largely immune from functional fixedness, they are better placed to see underlying analogies that, for example,  enable using fluid dynamics to optimize traffic flow, or ‘stealing’ aerodynamic gliding properties from bird wings and applying them to more sustainable aircraft design.   I’ve discussed these valuable serial innovators in some depth before, but if you want to understand them really deeply, I have to give a shout out to an excellent new book called Rangefrom David Epstein, that provides, amongst many insights, some lovely examples of how analogical thinking can help solve ‘wicked’ problems, and exposes some myths around the magic of 10,000 hours, especially in the context of complex problems requiring very creative solutions.
  3. Critical Thinkers and The Scientific Method. In 2017, the brilliant “The Edge” series from John Brockman posed the question, ‘What Scientific Term or Concept Should be More Widely Known?”  Two of the most popular answers from some of the brightest minds on the planet were the scientific methodand the theory of evolution.  More on evolution later.  But the power of the scientific method is that it teaches us to constantly challenge our ideas and hypothesis.  It teaches us not to test an idea to qualify it, but to challenge it, and find its faults.  Authentically challenging our most passionate beliefs is quite hard, but having someone on the team who ‘owns’ this can be crucial, especially in the early stages of the innovation process, before we get sucked too far down the escalation of commitment and sunk cost pathway. And it goes hand in hand with not being too agreeable, as challenging the teams ‘baby’, and path to future riches or promotions, is not always popular.  But if we can get over this emotional barrier, there are lots of tools at our disposal.  One is designing tests to find faults in our idea, another is to engage devil’s advocates and the outside view, yet another is to leverage integrative thinking, as described in my previous blog https://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2019/09/08/empathy-integrative-thinking-and-innovation/.  Applying the scientific method to business and innovation is the path P&G successfully took in the late 1990s, when it was looking to reinvent Olay as a prestige skin care product, an approach described in detail in Roger Martin and A G Lafley’s Aug 2012 HBR article, Bringing science to the art of strategy. 

I promised I’d also come back to evolution, and somebody smarter than I could probably write an entire book on the benefits to innovation of understanding evolution.  For example, there are well documented benefits to understanding evolutionary trends, as in TRIZ, or the TIPS theory of inventive problem solving. Pulsed evolution is a powerful analogy that can help us understand when early adopters and/or disruptive technology may or may not be valuable.  Evolutionary psychology is a powerful tool for understanding and separating real from imagined gender differences and overlaps.  Looking at growth through an evolutionary lens can help us to manage non-linear trends, and provide insights into how to manage external variation in growth and resources.  Perhaps most valuable of all, evolution can provide insights into developing more sustainable innovations from the life cycle and systems perspective, rather than from the viewpoint of the individual initiative. In nature, nothing is wasted, and any residue or pollutant represents a resource and evolutionary niche for some adaptation.

  1. Need for Cognition and Curiosity. Any innovation process is a balancing act between thinking and acting.  Teams dominated by thinkers often fail to move grand ideas to action, but conversely, a bias for action can also be counter productive. It’s rare that our first idea is our best one, and jumping into execution phase too soon can be a serious disadvantage, especially if a competitor has a little more patience, and starts developing a much bigger or more disruptive idea just a little later. And this is especially true for categories with long lead times, significant capital investment or regulatory challenges.  One way to address this is to charge leadership with picking an optimum time at which to switch from divergence to convergence, but another way to stack the deck in our favor is to have a couple of people on the team with a strong need for cognition. This is a term that Cognitive Psychologist Art Markman introduced me to, and it refers to people who naturally seek deep understanding of whatever they are dealing with. This is useful because it drives deep causal knowledge of systems, which in turn helps promote both deep understanding of the problem at hand.  It also facilitates the kind of deep connections and analogies that enable borrowing and reapply ideas from one domain to another. As a bonus, people who are high in need for cognition often double as expert generalists, simply because they are curious about everything they encounter.  But they can also act as brakes on the system, as the time it takes for them to go deep, and their need to understand and explain complexity not only helps prevent teams from over simplifying problems, but also acts as a natural braking mechanism. We don’t want a whole team that is high in need for cognition, as we’d never get anything done.  But a couple of team members in the mix can be invaluable.  And need for cognition does not have to be technical. It can take the form of deeply understanding consumer needs and motivations, or it can be people who seek deep immersion in processes.  I’ve done a fair amount of work in hospitality, and the best source of innovative insights and ideas in that industry are often the maids, servers and bar tenders, while virtually nothing beats spending a few hours assisting them in their work, and getting deep, detailed hands on, immersive understanding of what they do.
  2. A Balance of Experts and non Experts (Youth and Experience). Even in a balanced organization, birds of a feather flock together.  This makes it all too easy for teams to self assemble that are far less diverse than the broader organization, and addressing this can require some top down management.  For example, even experts who genuinely relish mentoring may still keep it as a separate activity from day to day work, hoping to avoid slowing down a fast moving innovation team with unnecessary explanation or training.  But mentoring on the job is not only a more Socratic and effecting training process, but the act of explanation to relative novices can actually be the catalyst for new ideas.   Likewise, teams of young, tech savvy individuals may not relish being slowed down by older, tech challenged team members.  But again, naivety and a need for explanation can be both a trigger for different ideas, and potentially expose vulnerabilities, feature creep, or lack of empathy for less expert users in a design.

Personality Models.  I promised I’d dive a bit deeper into personality models.  These are of course not new to the corporate world, where we’ve been using personality tests like Myers Briggs for years.  But we’ve typically used these to weed out unsuitable candidates far more than we’ve used then to build cognitive diversity into our organizations or teams.  And, frankly, there are far better models than Myers-Briggs, such as OCEAN and HEXACO, that are better supported by cognitive science.  Until recently, I favored OCEAN (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism), and discussed this in detail in an Innovation Excellence blog a few years ago.  It’s still a great model, but David Buss, a leading evolutionary psychologist from the University of Texas recently introduced me to a modification of this called HEXACO that I now prefer, and which is gaining ground with the psychology community in general.

Honesty-Humility. Apart from the obvious, this measures how likely someone is to manipulate others, and to break rules. 

Emotional Stability.Susceptible to negative emotions.

eXtroversion.Externally orientated, comfortable in the limelight

Agreeableness.Desire to get on with others, and to be liked.

Concientiousness.Tendency to keep order, complete tasks, and follow rules

Openess.Openness to new ideas, and to promote innovative and diverse thinking.

As with most good personality tests, these are not pass-fail criteria, but instead measure continuums.  Most people sit somewhere nearer the middle than the ends, and indeed, being at one end of the continuum usually comes with both pros and cons.  For example, as implied earlier, being high in agreeableness favors getting along with people, being popular, and welcomed into teams. But people high in agreeableness also struggle to give useful feedback, or to stand up and yell ‘stop’ when it is really needed. Have you ever been on a team where you always come out of meetings feeling upbeat, aligned, but yet mysteriously never seem to achieve anything? Maybe it has too many people who are high in agreeableness, and a person who pushes in another direction was needed?  But a team where everyone is low in agreeableness will have its own, easy to anticipate issues!  Likewise, conscientiousness is good, but only to a point. We need some people on a team who do what they say they will, and when they say they will, and to keep the team aware of it’s commitments. However, rules, and adherence to past behaviors and/or deadlines can also constrain creativity, and a team full of people high in conscientiousness is unlikely to step too far out of the box, or disrupt the status quo. Again, it’s not good or bad, and probably the only rule is that we want diversity in all of the traits spread across a team for it to operate optimally.  The ideal balance can also depend on what and where we are innovating. We want conscientiousness in pilots, or surgical teams for routine surgery. “Hi, I’m your surgeon, and just for fun I’m going to try something completely new this morning” is not something many of us want to hear!  But if we need to disrupt a category, this may be exactly the playful mindset we need. On an innovation team, we need a tension between some people who will step out of the box, and others who will herd us towards decisions, actions and progress.  Likewise, it’s great to have at least one extrovert on the team, as they create energy, and often promote the team to others. But too many, and smart introverts don’t get a word in, and the team drowns in a sea of unaligned but powerfully articulated opinions. Even Neuroticism can be useful. Team members who are overly susceptible to negative emotions can be draining, but I’ve been grateful on more than one occasion to an experienced cynic playing a devil’s advocate role, and helping a team to be appropriately self critical before pushing too far ahead with inviting but fatally flawed ideas.

But how do we actually use Hexaco?  At one extreme, we could ask everyone in an organization to take and share a test, and use the results to create balanced teams. However, realistically that comes with all sorts of challenges.  Not everyone wants to bare their soul, and certainly shouldn’t be forced to do so.  But knowing yourself, and developing the skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence to guestimate the personalities of others is less intimidating, and can still be very helpful, and simply understanding these traits can help this to happen.  The first step to this is self testing.  There arenumerous sites on the web where you can do this for free, but my personal favorite is http://hexaco.org/hexaco-online

The Curse of the Proctoid?I also promised to touch on my P&G experience, where I spent much of my corporate career. This is by no means a criticism of P&G, which has an admirable innovation track record. But, like most big organizations, it has had it’s ups and downs, needs to constantly reinvent itself to keep up with a rapidly changing world.  It would probably also be the first to admit that it would love to come up with more big ideas, and deliver them faster.  I’m personally a bit T-shaped when it comes to company experience.  I’m deep at P&G where I spent 25 years, but also have experience of big pharma, banking, oil, hospitality, fashion, retail, music and various other areas from my career both before and after P&G, and I try to look through this somewhat prismatic lens.  One of the most transferable insights I take from a hindsight heavy look at P&G is what I’ll call the curse of the Proctoid.  At P&G we were often called ‘Proctoids’.  This referred to a sort of clone or corporate ‘Stepford Wife’, and reflected how similar we must have appeared to ‘outsiders’. We thought, with some justification, that we were more creative and varied than we must have appeared, but there was likely also some truth to the ‘clone’ observation. There are enormous benefits to ‘cognitive homogeneity’ in large organizations, especially for day-to-day work.  Consistent business models, frameworks, training to fill ‘skill gaps’, common processes, language, behavioral and even thinking styles are efficient, especially in large, global corporations.  And highly structured global recruitment, training, rewards and HR systems commonly evolve to take advantage of these efficiencies.  This was my experience at P&G, but it is far from alone in this, and anecdotally I’ve found it quite common for companies to be populated with a lot of quite similar personalities that often reflect senior management.  But at P&G, I suspect a fairly strict promote from within policy reinforced and amplified these effects. I also suspect that we were more similar than we realized, as groups of similar people tend to become sensitive to small differences within themselves, and so overestimate their own diversity.

The Proctoid moniker was a caricature, but it highlights a real challenge for many large or growing organizations.  Disruptive innovations need disruptive thinkers, and even some disruptive behavior. Rigid cultures make it hard for disruptive thinkers to thrive; if we squeeze too hard for efficiency, we squeeze out creativity. At P&G this was clearly recognized, at least to some degree, and there were deliberate attempts to accommodate and nurture ‘different’ thinking styles, most notably by developing parallel technical and management career tracks in numerous disciplines.  These were not perfect, and tended to assume people were ‘either’ ‘or’.  I, along with a number of others bounced between these two career tracks, because we didn’t fit neatly into either of the bimodal ‘boxes’. But these frameworks, together with some functions did provide an oasis for cognitive diversity. But the point is not that P&G’s system was ideal, but that all organizations will need to find their own ways to both recruit and nurture more agile, disruptive thinkers.  And recruitment is often the biggest missed opportunity, as all too often, the successful mavericks in organizations are recruiting accidents.  They weren’t hired because they were unusual or disruptive, instead their uniqueness slipped through the cracks.  And we need integrate them into organizations, rather than placing them safely away from the mainstream business.  It’s a delicate, and ever changing balancing act, as we will still need day-to-day efficiency, and innovation is about balancing idea creation and efficient execution.  But as the pace of change inevitably accelerates, I suspect many companies will need to shift the balance away from the efficiency of cognitive homogeneity and towards the agility of cognitive diversity, and so will likely need more mavericks; people who can flow with change.  We’ll still need experts, but more and more we’ll need people who can adapt to new knowledge and new technologies, life long learner who can jump specialties.  The lifespan of an expert is contracting, and if our organization isn’t recruiting for that cognitive agility now, it will likely struggle in the face of rapid change later.

Conclusion:  This is not physics, and building cultures and teams with cognitive diversity and liberal dustings of analogical, critical and deep thinkers will likely never be as easy as ensuring we have the right mix of functions such as marketing, finance and technical expertise. But I do believe that organizations who try will have significant, and lasting advantages that can be coded deep into their cultural DNA, and that over time, this will pay out in the more frequent, and more game changing innovations that will increasing become survival traits in a world of accelerating change.

Build a common language of innovation on your team

Image credit: Pixabay

Wait! Before you go…

Choose how you want the latest innovation content delivered to you:


A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

Leave a Reply