If skill-set and experience are taken as given, what are the “X factors” that are critical to fostering innovation and collaboration within your teams?

Driving change into organisations is, by its nature, disruptive, and building collaborative and innovative teams requires some creativity from leadership. The development of the right team and structure and taking the opportunity to maximise the transformation team’s energy are both essential to ensure that a change program has the best possible chance of success.

Having the right people at the right time in the right place is also critical to success. The multiple stages that make up transformation projects all take time, focus and energy to deliver: strategy, transition into planning, setup, team establishment, delivery, bedding into BAU and finally benefits realisation.

That said, there are some characteristics that are harder to define when it comes to fostering collaboration and innovation, which we explore below.


Leadership and culture play an incredibly strong part in generating the energy and innovation required in the workplace that is essential for transformation. In a 2016 McKinsey article, scientific research posited a new angle on the way that culture and workplace environments affect people, especially when it is a pressured environment.

When we are more focused on threats than rewards, human beings tend to move into a defensive mode, which means that our brains divert scarce mental energy into launching a ‘fight’, ‘flight’ or ‘freeze’ response. As those instinctive responses unfold – manifesting into ‘snap, sulk, or skulk’ in the workplace – brain scans show that there is less activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain. To put it another way, some of our emotionally sophisticated neural wiring goes offline when we perceive ourselves to be in a threatening environment rather than a rewarding one.

Does this translate into projects? Very obviously. Quay has seen too many programs of change that demonstrate the characteristics of a threatening environment and, when time or budgets start to run short or pressure from the top starts to build, it can put teams on the defensive.

The McKinsey article showed that it was the opposite mode (i.e. discovery) that can draw out the best in a team. When creating an environment where the focus is on reward instead of threat, people’s brains tend to follow in the form of a feeling of belonging, of social recognition, or learning new things.

This provides the right environment to nudge members of the team from being defensive into top form. McKinsey also found that helping colleagues feel capable of handling matters on their own which provides a great boost to their resilience and confidence, thus increasing productivity and creativity.

Structuring an Innovating Team

The CIO.com.au article, 5 Trends That Will Transform Project Management, outlined some of the predictions for how project management would change, and we have to say, it nailed the critical issues.

Building and maintaining the right team is vital, as is selecting the right team members from the business who are likely to help or hinder program success. The article highlighted that it may also serve a business better if individuals are selected for their high-value core strengths in relation to business requirements instead of selecting project team members in a more traditional, departmental representation style. Putting a highly focused approach to strategy over projects can optimise resources, time and budget.

What does this look like for hierarchical organisational charts? Well, the article flagged the need to redraw the org charts to allow people with intrapreneurial mindsets to share ideas with decision-makers despite the chain of command. This aligns more closely to the discover mode outlined above.

There is also a strong case to be made for softer skills and solid communication, such as the ability to resolve conflict, deal with ambiguity, diplomacy, and confidentiality, as pre-requisites for success. Soft skills are not easy to find and yet are essential for project leaders that are agile, adaptable, and can rapidly refocus efforts as a project’s priorities change, not to mention constructively contribute to the organisation’s culture.

When the whole team is focused on the one goal and where big ideas can flow internally from any team member, the environment becomes collaborative, innovative and energised.

The Energy Drain

We touched on threatening versus reward focused environments earlier, and this is important for the way team energy either develops or depletes.

For example, a threatening environment is far more draining than a discovery/reward focused one. Constantly fighting communications challenges, having to align and re-align internal and external stakeholders saps energy and is ultimately detrimental to the performance of both individuals and teams.

McKinsey’s article highlights a variation on this: the research found that people are less creative, more stressed and make 2-4 times as many mistakes when they deal with interruptions and distractions. Multi-tasking and constant interruptions make us not only less productive, but drains energy far quicker. The research also showed that if people go offline when doing their most important work, coupled with frequent breaks, they’ll see an improvement in productivity, innovation and morale.

In an era of activity-based working, open plan offices that cater to extroverts more than introverts, and the need to be constantly available, the requirement for project teams to ‘disconnect’ to focus on the job at hand is becoming critical for remaining focused. This is especially true for your project team.

Optimising a Leadership Environment

The points above are not exhaustive but hopefully signpost the critical considerations that will lead to a highly functioning team that can tackle a challenging transformation. Creativity in leadership, the right team and structure, and protecting and maximising team energy all play a vital part in ensuring your transformation has the greatest opportunity for success.

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To speak to our team about how we can help your business deliver better projects, please contact us.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...