Innovation – the creation of something new and useful – is the fuel that drives growth. Especially during economic downturns, businesses rely on innovation to attract new consumers and distinguish themselves from the competition.

The most successful organizations stimulate innovation by building cultures that encourage it. This may sound obvious, but many businesses find that this is easier said than done. The key lies in understanding what factors encourage or discourage human beings to be creative and then duplicating those factors.

It should come as no surprise that innovation relies on the exchange of ideas that come from different sources, like a physician’s discussion with a rocket scientist that leads to the idea for camera-guided surgical procedures. No wonder the phrase “silo-busting” has become commonplace.

On some scale, almost every organization carries the seeds of innovation in the diversity of perspectives represented by different disciplines. The challenge lies in getting these groups and individuals – many of whom speak different professional languages and even have different values – to routinely share their ideas in the spirit of collaboration and in support of innovation.

Every industry must develop a new generation of products or services in order to sustain viability. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, the process typically involves a series of handoffs from scientists who perform the basic work of discovery to clinicians who steer new drugs through lengthy clinical trials and navigate the tricky relationship with government regulators.

From there, the process involves the marketing group that creates the branding, packaging, pricing and promotion, and then finally the sales team that pitches the product to the medical community.

Needless to say, all of this takes years and is fraught with inherent conflict among groups. In an effort to speed up the process and create products with a high probability of winning government approval while appealing to the marketplace and generating a profit, some pharmaceuticals have created multidisciplinary teams of scientists and marketing and sales professionals.

Conceptually, this sounds like a great idea. All of those smart people working together to achieve a common goal should produce great results. Unfortunately, just bringing people together does not necessarily produce elegant outcomes. In fact, the obstacles are significant.

Each group typically comes with its own set of beliefs and values, such as “my part of the process is the most valuable.” Each group also has its own language and assumptions and its own methods and procedures. Rarely are people inclined to patiently take the time to share information and decode language, values and assumptions with others who “are different from us.”

It takes time to build trust, and it takes time for newly formed groups to become productive. Innovation generally involves some level of risk. definition, the outcome is unknown, which makes trust all the more essential.

Sometimes a message is conveyed that mistakes or failures – even those that are the result of positive intentions – will be punished. This effectively dampens any enthusiasm for such pursuits. Furthermore, there are frequently more incentives for each group to meet its own measures of success than for the group as a whole to meet a collective goal.

How does an organization harness the potential power of multidisciplinary teams to produce innovative results? Here are some practices to follow as well as others to avoid:


Bring multidisciplinary teams together to define their own collective common vision, goal or objective.

Provide facilitative leadership that is neutral and respected by all involved.

Allow plenty of time up-front for learning about one another’s values, assumptions, practices and methodologies.

Build skills in constructive dialogue, decision making and conflict resolution.

Provide rewards and incentives for outcomes only the group as a whole can produce.

Send the message that creativity and innovation require time, exploration and experimentation.

Create a learning environment that encourages learning from mistakes and failures.


Expect a multidisciplinary team to gel instantly.

Impose a goal or method that clearly values one discipline over others.

Provide rewards for individuals or groups that outweigh and conflict with potential group rewards.

Punish exploration and experimentation with unrealistic timelines.

Punish mistakes and failures that are the result of positive efforts and intentions.

By following the recommendations of these two lists, you’ll be well on your way to establishing an environment of innovation at your business. And in turn, you’ll position your company for growth.