Agile.  Nimble.  Fast.  These are the characteristics that illustrate how many firms are growing and winning market share and outsized profits.  The ability to spot trends, move quickly into new opportunities or markets, and re-think or re-organize your business is vitally important.  While there are many factors that contribute to your ability to remain nimble, agile and fast, none is more important than the size and cohesion of the team.

It may be difficult to believe, but adding just one person who doesn't share your vision, doesn't share your commitment, or who simply isn't willing to take new risks can completely alter your course and especially your pace.  The fact that your success or failure can be dictated by a single individual with different goals or objectives may seem unlikely. But the wrong person is much more likely to disrupt your outcomes than the wrong solutions or targeting the wrong market.

Why the wrong person matters so much

Whether we are talking about an entrepreneurial company or an innovation team in a larger project, team size and, especially, composition matter.  In a small team, and they should be small enough to sustain cohesion and improve communication, one individual carries a lot of weight.  Further, uncertainty and doubt spread more quickly than passion or confidence.  A single individual who isn't completely "bought-in" disrupts a small team, disrupts unity, and delays implementation more quickly than any other factor.  Hence, you need to choose wisely.

Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review shows how powerful the effect of one person on a small team can be.  While the article focuses more on illegal activities than creative activities, the point remains: In small teams doing interesting things, one bad apple ruins the commitment, cohesion, and effort for everyone.

Selection criteria

So, when selecting a team mate, what should you look for?  First, before hiring someone new, ask whether or not your existing team can do the work reasonably effectively.  It's better for a cohesive team to do more work than to delegate some portion of its work to a person who doesn't share the same goals or values.  Second, examine the new hire's purpose and passion.  In many cases it's more important that they share your goals and vision, and can learn the work on the job.  People who are experts in their field but don't share your passion or goals will, ultimately, derail the activity.

Third, quickly test your assumptions.  Don't think the new hire is aligned, know he or she is aligned, because cleaning up the mistakes later will simply require more work that you cannot afford.  Fourth, be willing to cut your losses quickly.   A person who isn't aligned probably won't see the light and get aligned later.  Better to jettison someone quickly who doesn't align to team goals than to nudge them along, hoping that they'll change.

The unusual suspects

When I work with large corporations building innovation teams, I often seek out what I call the unusual suspects.  The usual suspects are people who have been very successful in day-to-day operations, which means they are wedded to existing products and processes and will be uncomfortable with new discoveries or new tools.  Instead I ask for people on the periphery, who seem to reject the existing products or processes.  The reason is simple.

The usual suspects will work primarily to reinforce the status quo, rarely going beyond incremental innovation.  The unusual suspects are already looking for new products and services.  They are willing to explore and experiment.  While we have to sell and convince the usual suspects--who often aren't willing to change--we rarely have to convince the unusual suspects.  They already share an innovative vision.

Every entrepreneur and innovator is in a race that is often poorly scoped and funded. You need everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction, not questioning why they aren't in another boat, or why they are using oars rather than paddles.  Build the absolutely smallest, most committed team you can find and only add staff when you have to--and that share the vision and goals that the rest of the team has.