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Leading Ethically, vol. 1, May 2024: Innovation for Highly Matrixed Teams

Innovation for Highly Matrixed Teams -- Leading Ethically -- vol. 1
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Phil Jackson, widely regarded as one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, once said “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” This same cohesive philosophy also holds true when applied to high-performance teams within a business organization ― particularly cross-functional teams that are charged with unleashing creativity and innovation as their primary strength to achieve critical breakthroughs.

Several years back the World Economic Forum conducted research on the skills that would be most needed to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.[1] The top three skills, given the avalanche of new products and emerging technologies, were complex problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.[2] Clearly, these are some of the most valuable traits needed by members of any innovation dream team today. They also involve a delicate balance between creativity and rationality.

In some ways, innovation really resembles a team sport. For initiatives to succeed, organizations know that innovation teams must be diverse and staffed with the right combination of cross-functional talent. This is the only way to ensure having the right players needed to win at the high-stakes game of innovation.

So, how are organizations upping the ante to drive and deliver innovative project performance by team members? Well, today many companies, such as Nike and Starbucks, have accelerated their rate of innovation by structuring as a matrix organization. A matrix organization is basically a company structure where teams report to multiple leaders. For example, instead of reporting only to department heads, employees might also report to project managers making managerial roles a bit fluid and changing based on a project’s needs.

The primary purpose of the matrix design is to keep open communication between teams — especially those involved with innovative initiatives — to help create breakthrough products and services. One of the key areas of strength for matrix organizations lies in facilitating collaboration since cross-company teamwork is one of the chief aims of many matrices.[3] Moreover, this type of structure prevents teams from needing to realign every time a new project begins.

While exceptional innovation is often associated with creativity and the “spark of an idea that changes the world,” it also involves tenacity, constant iteration, and learning. In other words, the ability to balance creativity along with rationality.[4] 

This issue of Leading Ethically explores several strategies that are effectively used in highly-matrixed organizations to accelerate innovation among team members while taking the underlying concepts of creativity and rationality into consideration to ultimately produce innovation dream teams. The four high-level strategies explored in this issue emphasize a matrix organization’s ability to successfully:

1.     Foster diversity among innovation team members,

2.     Unleash team creativity for innovation,

3.     Provide supportive leadership, and

4.     Leverage emerging technology.


Fostering Diversity Among Innovation Team Members

The ability to bring together a well-constructed dream team or “innovation incubator” within a matrix organization is both an art and skill. To do so successfully involves embracing diversity and inclusion within the team to accelerate creativity and innovation. Put simply, the participation of individuals from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives often leads to more innovative solutions to complex problems. Promoting diversity of thought encourages teams to seek out multiple viewpoints and expertise when tackling problems or generating new ideas.

A piece that appeared in the Harvard Business Review on ways to build innovative teams stressed that research has consistently shown that the most-creative teams are diverse and heterogenous. Accordingly, managers should avoid hiring with a specific “type” in mind ― which usually involves people who seem most like themselves. While this might be great for creating “camaraderie” and “comfort,” it is not the best environment for innovating and solving problems. A variety of studies have shown that diverse teams are smarter, more creative, and examine facts more thoroughly.[5] 

Greg Satell, author of the book Mapping Innovation, said “It seems like everybody these days is looking for an early version of Steve Jobs.” But, he also notes that most great innovators are unlike the mercurial stereotype; many are kind, generous, soft-spoken, and modest. He also embraces the concept of creating diversity among an innovation team to find the right people.

Satell notes that when you narrow the backgrounds, experiences, and outlooks of people on your team, you are limiting the number of solutions that can be effectively explored.[6] According to Satell if you create a homogenous team then you are “almost guaranteeing that the best answers will be found somewhere else.” The reason for this is simple: when your team lacks diversity, then you run the risk of creating an echo chamber where inherent biases are normalized and reinforced.[7] 

So, when assembling a diverse and inclusive team that consists of world-class innovators, its is imperative to understand the critical traits that drive the most successful ones. After working for decades with companies pursuing innovated-led growth, powerhouse strategy consulting firm McKinsey & Company has identified a series of traits that distinguish the most successful innovators.[8]

McKinsey found ten innovator traits that can be grouped into four categories: vision, collaboration, learning, and execution that unlocks and drives performance in most organizations with innovation teams.[9] 

Vision is the group of traits that highlights the ability to identify opportunities. This can include articulating a compelling vision along with “uncovering” which is  the intrinsic curiousity to see the possibilities in a given context and distill the most valuable insights. It also involves “generating” which is the ability to develop meaningful value propositions that solve significant customer problems. There is also “selling” which encompasses the ability to explain the nuances of what creates the value.

Collaboration, the second group of traits, fosters effective teamwork and change management that brings cohesion to a group. It involves “motivating” action and creating a work environment that tolerates failure as a necessary part of the innovation process. Along with this are “networking” and “orchestrating” abilities.

Learning involves the attribute of “absorbing,” a quality that most entrepreneurs exhibit. It manifests itself in a deep curiousity about anything that could help a venture succeed along with exploring leads and pursuing new ideas from multiple sources.

Execution, the last innovator category, includes “pioneering” or the skills to break to break down ideas into an achievable sequence of activities. There is also “deciding,” the ability to use strong critical-thinking skills to draw conclusions from imperfect information. Lastly, this category involves “tabulating” which is the ability to apply financial modeling to size an opportunity by judging risks and payoffs.

Lastly, a recent study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) suggests that increasing the diversity of leadership teams also leads to more and better innovation as well as improved financial performance. In this study, it was found that companies reporting above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity.[10]


Unleashing Team Creativity for Innovation

In an article explaining why team culture is the “cradle of creativity,” Big-4 advisory firm Deloitte aptly suggests that when it comes to creativity and innovation within organizations that culture, people, and the work environment play an important role in unleashing team creativity.[11] So, what strategies can matrix organizations use to boost their culture of creativity for team innovation to succeed?

Well, the first thing to understand is that many creativity researchers usually make a distinction between creativity and innovation.[12] It is considered a two-stage process involving:

1.    The generation of new ideas (creativity)

2.    The implementation of the ideas (innovation)

There are numerous strategies for boosting or accelerating creativity on teams that leads to breakthrough innovations. Here are a few proven ways to unleash creativity within an organization:[13]

·         Encourage brainstorming sessions that generate lots of ideas (and not just good ones) while allowing time to experiment with them — this could also include hosting “innovation jams” where teams collaborate in real-time to generate, refine, and pitch innovative ideas.


·         Provide a dedicated space/time for creativity as well as a safe space to fail in — failure should be celebrated and shared as a valuable learning experience without a negative connotation attached to it.


·         Develop an appreciation for the subtle art of “problem-finding.”  because problems are the necessary precondition for novel solutions.


·         Promote cross-functional/interdisciplinary collaboration, something that is usually done very well in matrix organizations.


·         Build a culture of experimentation and iteration where it is acceptable to try new things, learn from failure, and continuously improve.


·         Encourage teams to adopt agile methodologies and lean principles to iterate quickly, gather feedback, and adapt their approach based on results — this might include organizing innovation sprints where cross-functional teams come together for a short period to solve specific challenges or work on innovative projects intensively.


·         Identify and empower individuals within the organization who are passionate about innovation to serve as champions where they can advocate for for innovative initiatives, mentor others, and help drive change across teams and departments.


·         Develop and distribute innovation playbooks/toolkits that outline best practices, methodologies, frameworks, and resources for driving innovation within the organization.


·         Establish internal innovation forums or regular town hall meetings where teams can share progress on innovation projects, discuss challenges, and solicit feedback from stakeholders across the organization. 


·         Form external advisory panels comprising industry experts, thought leaders, and innovators from outside organizations to provide fresh perspectives and insights.


·         Harness the power of predictive analytics to identify emerging trends, customer needs, and market opportunities for innovation using data-driven insights to inform decision-making as well as prioritizing initiatives.


·         Establish innovation metrics to measure the effectiveness of team innovation efforts — this could include metrics for the number of new ideas generated, the speed of idea implementation, and the impact on business outcomes.


·         Introduce design thinking workshops and frameworks to help teams empathize with end-users, define problems, ideate solutions, prototype, and test ideas iteratively — this human-centered approach can lead to more innovative and user-centric solutions.


·         Launch innovation challenges or competitions focused on specific themes or areas of interest to solicit ideas and solutions from employees and teams across the organization — make sure to provide incentives and recognition for winning submissions.


·         Assess an organization’s innovation culture through surveys, interviews, or cultural assessments while using insights gleaned to identify areas for improvement and implement targeted interventions to further nurture a culture of continuous innovation.


Providing Supportive Leadership

Leaders plays a pivotal role in promoting innovation within a matrix organization. They are responsible for creating a culture and enabling environment where innovation is not only encouraged but regularly expected. Leaders need to provide vision, direction, and support while also being receptive to new ideas that might challenge the status quo.

Because innovation flourishes in a supportive culture, it is important to have effective innovation leaders that exhibit certain distinct traits. According to the University of California, Berkeley there are four qualities displayed by leaders who support innovation:[14]

1.        Authenticity. This is where genuine leaders inspire trust and encourage teams to step outside their comfort zones by fostering open communication and collaboration.


2.      Servant Leadership. An approach where leaders put the collective good above personal ambitions to create an atmosphere of unity and cooperation which boosts collective problem-solving.


3.      Growth Mindset. Leaders who display a growth mindset view failures as opportunities for learning and mistakes are seen as stepping stones to innovation.


4.     Innovation Mindset. A state of mind where leaders are open to novel ideas, processes, and approaches for inspiring creativity and risk-taking.


Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” making it clear that leaders do certain things differently, especially when it comes to sparking innovation within an organization. One of the things that these leaders must do well is articulate a compelling vision for the future that inspires and motivates employees to push boundaries to pursue innovation relentlessly.[15] Great leaders also support open communication by creating channels that allow employees to share ideas, concerns, and freely receive feedback. They also lead change, which certainly involves innovation,  by encouraging a culture of experimentation.[16]

Another quality of innovative leaders is that they encourage boundaryless thinking. They do so by challenging conventional boundaries and silos within organizations to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and holistic problem-solving approaches.[17] Along with this, these same leaders create a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable taking risks, sharing ideas, and challenging the status quo without fear of retribution.

Lastly, leaders that are serious about promoting innovation, invest and develop the necessary infrastructure ― including tools, processes, and systems ― to support and streamline innovation efforts across an organization.


Leveraging Emerging Technology

When it comes to investing in infrastructure to promote team innovation, emerging technology and digital transformation is now at the front line of this critical endeavor. A key strategy for accelerating innovation within a matrix organization is the ability to effectively leverage this tech. In fact, a study recently released by McKinsey found that companies with strong innovation cultures are ahead of their peers in using technology to distance themselves from competitors.[18]

Here are some major categories of emerging technology that leaders and managers of innovation teams should research and consider implementing:

·         Team Collaborative Platforms: These platforms facilitate real-time collaboration and communication among team members, allowing them to work together seamlessly regardless of their location. Examples include Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Asana.


·         Artificial Intelligence (AI) for Team Collaboration: AI-powered tools and chatbots for assisting teams by automating repetitive tasks, providing data insights, and facilitating knowledge sharing ― resulting in boosts for productivity and innovation.


·         Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR): VR and AR technologies enable immersive experiences that can enhance team collaboration, training, and idea generation by creating virtual meeting spaces and interactive simulations.


·         Idea Management Software: Idea management software helps teams capture, evaluate, and prioritize ideas from employees ― ultimately enabling organizations to harness the creativity of their workforce and drive innovation initiatives.


·         Predictive Analytics: Predictive analytics tools analyze historical data to forecast future trends and outcomes, empowering teams to make informed decisions and anticipate market opportunities for innovation.


·         Knowledge Management Systems: These systems centralize and organize knowledge assets within an organization, making it easier for teams to access relevant information, share expertise, and collaborate on projects.


·         Data Visualization Tools: Data visualization tools help teams explore and communicate insights from complex datasets through interactive charts, graphs, and dashboards while facilitating data-driven decision-making and innovation.


·         Gamification Platforms: Gamification techniques can be applied to workplace activities to motivate and engage team members while driving participation in innovation programs, training, and problem-solving challenges.


To Learn More

If you would like to discover more groundbreaking insights and transformative leadership strategies, please be sure to visit the official website of The Ethical Imperative, presented by Andrew C.M. Cooper at







































[1] Interestingly, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and all its technological advancements has marked the beginning of what is now known as the “Imagination Age.” The Imagination Age is the period beyond the Information Age where creativity, imagination, and innovation become the primary creators of economic value.


[2] See “The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” World Economic Forum, January 19, 2016 at


[3] See generally “Revisiting the Matrix Organization,” McKinsey & Company, January 1, 2016 at


[4] See “Innovation Dream Teams: The Importance of Balancing Creativity and Rationality,” Forbes, May 31, 2023 at

[5] See “4 Ways to Build an Innovation Team,” Harvard Business Review, February 13, 2018 at


[6] Ibid.


[7] Ibid.

[8] See “Fielding High-Performing Innovation Teams,” McKinsey & Company, January 17, 2019 at


[9] Ibid.

[10] See “How Diverse Leadership Teams Boost Innovation,” BCG, January 23, 2018 at


[11] See “Why Team Culture is the Cradle of Creativity,” Deloitte, March 4, 2022 at


[12] See “What the Research Tells Us About Creativity and Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, December 15, 2015 at


[13] For background, see generally “8 Strategies To Boost your Team’s Creativity,” Forbes, June 8, 2023 at Also see “5 Ways to Boost Creativity on Your Team,” Harvard Business Review, March 28, 2023 at

[14] See “The Leadership of Innovation – Discovering What Makes Some Leaders Better Than Others at Driving Innovation, BerkeleyExecEd, July 17, 2023 at


[15] See generally “The Most Important Leadership Competencies, According to Leaders Around the World,” Harvard Business Review, March 15, 2016 at


[16] See generally “Leading Change With a Culture of Experimentation,” MITSloan Management Review, November 11, 2021 at


[17] See “Making Collaboration Across Functions a Reality, McKinsey & Company, March 3, 2016 at Also see “Cross-Silo Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 2019 at


[18] See “How Innovative Companies Leverage Tech to Outperform,” McKinsey & Company, December 14, 2023 at


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