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May 5, 2015

One of my favorite things to do is to connect people and ideas that would not connect in the normal course of business. That’s where you find many interesting ideas and innovative solutions. So when my friend — a senior executive of a global energy company — said he wanted to build a culture of innovation, I suggested that we have dinner with my friends at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

I know it’s not immediately obvious what this has to do with a BLT sandwich or with building a great team, but if you give me a minute or two, I promise to make that connection, too.

Dr. Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist, has done a spectacular job of creating a culture of innovation across his organization. For example, at the Houston Methodist Research Institute they are doing research on many fascinating fronts, from nanotechnology that attacks cancer tumors to technology that regenerates bone growth in as little as three hours. The latter has the potential to help soldiers whose arms and legs have been seriously injured in explosions save their limbs and even walk off the battlefield.

I arranged the dinner because I’ve observed that when you connect very intelligent and curious people with disparate skills and experiences — and have a skillful conversation — everyone benefits, and innovation occurs.

Dr. Mauro Ferrari, the president of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, was there and he shared his remarkably simple formula for recruiting the sort of team that can be highly innovative. Can you see it coming? It’s called BLT. He hires the best people, who are likeable and trustworthy.

This made perfect sense to me. You can’t just hire superstars, because many are self-centered and selfish. However, when you hire the best people who are likeable, then they attract other smart people. Add the element of trust, and you have the foundation for a truly innovative culture.

By the way, to be innovative, you have to take risks. Would you take risks with people you don’t trust?

Dr. Ferrari has a strong sense of passion. He also loves seamlessly putting disciplines together that traditionally have been separated in distinct silos. When a leader possesses these qualities, the desire to innovate filters down through an organization.

This leads me to a few other observations about what it takes to create and nurture innovation in your organization…

Create space for innovation to flourish. Literally create a physical space. But also create space in terms of time, people and money. Don’t expect immediate results. Celebrate and learn from failure. Create opportunities for serendipitous accidents to happen.

Look far outside your industry. Leading companies don’t just look within their industry for fresh ideas. They look in seemingly disconnected places. So….

  • Go on a fieldtrip. Take a subset of high performing people from across your company, and across many functions. Go see Tesla. Go see the smartest, most creative organizations in the world. Tell your people, “I don’t care if you innovate anything for three months, we’re just going to go look at stuff.” And… 
  • Bring smart people to you. For example, if you are in the transportation field, try bringing in a few of the smartest minds in retailing or healthcare. See how they look at the ways you do things. Many of your industry’s most perplexing problems have already been solved in other industries; your challenge is to discover which people in what industries. 

How is this all connected? Likeable and trustworthy talent craves collaboration. They are endlessly curious. Managed properly, such people create an engine for growth and innovation. And that is how BLT helps you build a spectacular team.

Tom Elsenbrook leads Alvarez & Marsal’s Performance Improvement division. Its business advisers bring a “take-action” approach to Global 1000 corporations, working to dramatically improve performance and unlock the promise of top and bottom line results.