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Casting your innovation team for diversity

Learning from the film industry about team compositionHeaderWorkshop

What can we learn from the film industry about team composition? In my view, we can learn a lot. For instance, according to Alfred Hitchcock “75% of directing is casting" - which is an excellent quote illustrating the importance allocated to team composition in the film industry - where rigorous and costly casting processes are the norm rather than the exception. 

In most other industries we only spend a fraction of our time and resources on team composition and team staffing; something which has always struck me by surprise, since so many of us seem to agree that team composition is crucial to innovation success.

In order to investigate what we can learn from the film industry in terms of recruiting for innovation and diversity, I recently did an interesting training series with Arla Foods where we wanted to explore what the film industry has to offer in terms of team composition, innovation and diversity. And with this blog post, I want to share some of our most important findings, and none the least some of the most importantant take-aways.

The Basics of Team composition - and the need for diversity in teams

One of my favorite quotes when it comes to team composition is this one from Jim Collins: "Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seat". Which is equally important whether you are composing a team for productivity (complementarity) or innovation (diversity). But the most critical part in team composition is to avoid homogeneity.

We all know that and yet, according to Govindarajan & Trimble (2009), some of the most common mistakes in innovation team composition is that we:

  • Tend to have a bias for similar others (=> homogeneity)
  • Managers tend to favor their own employees (as opposed to more competent outsiders)
  • Availability oftentimes end up being perceived as more important than skills
  • Familiarity (we tend to think that people we know are much more competent than people we do not know)
  • Expedience and speed (for some reason composition is often perceived as something we need to quickly get done)

And even if most of us are very much aware of the importance of "getting the team right", more often than not - when we compose new teams, these teams end up bearing evidence of not just one but many, if not all, of the most common mistakes above.

Learning from the film industry But what is it in particular that we may learn from the film industry, when seeking to avoid the mistakes listed above?

First, and foremost, we may learn from the overwhelming importance allocated to team composition (or the casting of the right cast & crew for any new film). This importance is evidenced not only by the enormous amount of resources allocated to casting, which eats up a big chunk of the overall film budget.This importance is evidenced by the priority allocated by top management to casting in general; with both the director and the producer being heavily involved in all of the important team composition decisions. Furthermore, the role played by the casting director, who is in charge of the tedious recruiting process, working closely together with both the producer and the director in designing the best and the exact right team composition.

Secondly, we may learn a lot from the rigorous casting process used in the film industry - it most certainly has a lot to offer as a methodology which can be applied and used in composing any new team. Even if only for inspiration. The casting process - or methodology - consists of five different steps:

  • STEP 1: MAKING THE “BREAKDOWN”: COMPLETE LIST OF REQUIRED TALENT? Producer and casting director create a breakdown for each character which is then distributed
  • STEP 2: PORTFOLIO SELECTION INITIATED: APP 30 PER ROLE IS SELECTED? Agents submit characters and the casting direct will select the app 30 best candidates based on desired talent and ask them to participate in an audition
  • STEP 3: AUDITIONS WHERE THE DIFFERENT CANDIDATES ARE PRESENTED ? Audition pieces or “cold read-ups” are presented to the director, producer, casting director
  • STEP 4: CALL-BACKS AND TEST FILMING OF BEST CHARACTERS? App 10 candidates per role will be called back and test-filmed for each role
  • STEP 5: SELECTION MADE? Based on test-filming Casting Director + producer + director make final selection

Can you think of the last time within your organisation where anyone spent this much time, energy or this many resources on putting together a new team, even for highly important or prestigious innovation projects or assignments? But maybe we should do, if not all, then just a little bit of this:

  • What if we made a detailed break-down (description) of each important team role, a job description, even if we are not recruiting new employees, but "merely" recruiting for a new team?
  • What if we insisted on finding at least 30 possible candidates for each team role, which we were able to compare and choose from, in our search for the very best, possible team member for each team role?
  • What if we insisted on setting up "auditions", where the best 20+ candidates for each team role would compete by showing off (rather than talk about) their unique skills and abilities, and the difference they would be able to make for this particular innovation team?
  • What if we insisted on inviting the best 10 candidates for each team role to conduct a small pilot-assignment together, similar to the real project just on a smaller scale, to be able to judge each candidate on how well they perform in a real-time situation
  • What if we insisted that the recruiting decisions should be made not by the project leader in charge, but on top managerial and executive level?

In a later blogpost I will look into casting or team composition from an employee perspective, by looking the methods and logics of typecasting, and how I recently did a different project exploring this typecasting perspective at Microsoft..

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