Like much we've learned over the last 15-20 years of experience, many innovation insights are counter-intuitive. That is, they seem radically, if not 180 degrees, different than what our experience tells us.

For example, open innovation, sharing and exchanging ideas with partners, experts and channels can accelerate innovation. Exploration and discovery can introduce better ideas in less time. Experts are often so embedded in an industry that they lack the vision to see new opportunities. And, finally, the point of this post: volunteers are often far better innovators than experts you assign to the task.

Why volunteers are better

In most business settings, when a challenging new task arises you seek out the people who have "been there and done that" before. You seek out the experts, the people who have the scars, experience and past success. They will apply their experience and tools to quickly solve the problem.

But when it comes to innovation, assigning people who didn't have passion or interest in the idea, who will draw on past experience and ignore new inputs or insights and who will quickly converge to a solution is exactly the wrong way to proceed.

Enthusiasm required

Innovation requires--no, it demands--enthusiasm. Ideas that fall outside the mainstream, challenges in operating outside the normal boundaries, requirements from the "day job" will all interfere when you are trying to innovate. If you have no passion for the work--if you were assigned rather than an eager volunteer--you'll find that the people who were assigned will quickly settle on virtually any viable idea, just to get back to their regular jobs. In most cases, I'd rather work with a handful of passionate volunteers with less seniority than a highly regarded, highly experienced team that doesn't have any commitment to the innovation project.

The expertise trap

People who are assigned and have deep experience bring all of that experience to bear. They believe they were assigned to the job because of their past experience and knowledge, and will resist or ignore new insights and especially new tools and techniques. Volunteers are much more likely to embrace new ways of thinking, to adopt new tools and techniques which are often necessary for new discoveries.

The best innovations often start by looking at a problem by first setting aside experience and preconceived notions - what Zen Buddhism calls the Beginner's Mind. Volunteers with passion are more likely to take this approach than experts who were assigned to the task.


Experts who are assigned to a task often want to complete the task as quickly and efficiently as possible, calling on past tools and experiences to deliver an answer, no matter how viable the answer is. These individuals are familiar with "convergence"--taking in the easily available data and arriving at a plausible answer as quickly as possible.

Volunteers, on the other hand, are more likely to be led into a time of exploration or discovery, diverging to discover new insights and new opportunities. They aren't necessarily worried about efficiency as much as finding the best solution because they have passion for the topic.

How you structure an innovation team matters

The less you know about an opportunity or the more you hope to create really disruptive innovation, the more you need volunteers who are motivated by discovery and passion. Experts using old tools and methods can create incremental innovation, but will struggle to create radically new and different ideas. For that you need passionate, engaged volunteers. Staff your teams according to the types of ideas and outcomes you desire.