Blog articles

4 characteristics of innovative teams

By Richard Harpur

Successful startups have the power to disrupt—and write the future of—entire industries.

At their epicenter? Innovative teams.

Anatomy of innovative teams

   1: Laser focus

   2: Ownership of their work

   3: Lifelong learners

   4: Trust

Building teams that reflect these four must-haves is a must-do if you want to innovate at the pace of your competition, and, ideally, ahead of the pace of change. 

Dive deeper on each winning characteristic to see how to foster the kind of innovation that will move your team forward at breakneck speed.


Laser focus

Innovative teams defy distraction and remain highly focused on their work.

How? They start with the “why.” Methods and mechanics come only after you establish a clear reason why you are trying to achieve your goals. That clear sense of purpose greases the wheels of innovation.

Stripe is an example of a now multibillion-dollar startup fueled by focus. Founders John and Patrick Collision had a clear aim: to simplify online payment processing for small businesses. Identifying the “why” early on gave every person who joined their team a common purpose. Ask one of their developers why they’re building a particular feature; they should be able to explain how that feature keeps the focus on their mission. 

If everyone in your corner can’t answer the “why” for your organization, start with putting their purpose in focus. 


Ownership of their work

Mutual, vested interest in everything the team produces is crucial to continued innovation.

Feeling a sense of responsibility for outcomes helps team members commit to bringing ideas forward early and often—rather than waiting on others to pitch cutting-edge concepts.

Leaders can build this sense of ownership by communicating the value of ideas as equal to the value of an employee’s time. This is highly visible in smaller organizations, where it is entirely the responsibility of everyone on the team to chime in with their suggestions in order to achieve the goals of the organization; everyone needs to have a stake in your success. 


Lifelong learning

Each day is a day of learning on an innovative team.

That applies to the practice of developing new skills and learning from others’ experiences in equal measure. When individual team members commit to both upskilling and sharing their insights with others, the team collectively learns. When a team collectively learns, there’s a multiplier effect. You might think of this as crowdsource learning.

Although the challenges technology leaders face in implementing solutions for skill development are significant, leaders of innovative teams know that building learning into your team’s day-to-day is possible, and made easier with the right tools. Technology learning needs to meet the learner where they are for them to stay engaged and excited about moving forward, and it needs to give them a clear path to their intended outcome. 



None of these traits of winning teams materializes in the absence of trust.

Innovation necessarily comes at the risk of failure. With high degrees of trust, however, potential failures are nothing to be afraid of. Rather, failures become learning opportunities for the entire team to grow from.

To help take the fear out of failure, superstar startups use a positive term for them: pivot. When something isn’t working, turn in a different direction. Pivoting is totally acceptable—in fact, it’s expected that innovative startups will need to pivot to find the best fit for their offering. With trust, pivoting can help reset energy and motivation levels. In organizations where there is no room for failure, innovative ideas never see the light of day.

Take your team to the next level

Look at your team through the lens of leaders with wildly innovative teams. Encouraging a healthy balance of the four winning traits will uncover opportunities to accelerate the rate of innovation within your organization. Check out our webinar on agility for a more in-depth explanation of strategies established firms can adopt to remain relevant.

About the author

Richard Harpur is a highly experienced technology leader with a remarkable career ranging from software development, project management through to C-level roles as CEO, CIO, and CISO. Richard is highly rated and ranked in Ireland's top 100 CIOs. As an author for Pluralsight - a leader in online training for technology professionals - Richard's courses are highly-rated in the Pluralsight library and focus on teaching critical skills in cybersecurity including ISO27001 and Ransomware. As a Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) Richard is ideally positioned and passionate about sharing his extensive knowledge and experience to empower others to be successful. Richard also writes extensively on technology and security leadership and regularly speaks at conferences. When he is not writing for his blog Richard enjoys hiking with his wife and 4 children in County Kerry, the tourist capital of Ireland. You can reach Richard on twitter @rharpur.