By Shalini Ramakrishnan, Director of Product Marketing

What is the main difference that separates a good R&D team from a great one? Most will put ‘technical skills’ on top of the chart. The reality, however, is a bit different. 

Of course, organizations need to bank on their R & D teams’ knowledge and technical expertise to come up with innovative solutions. However, do innovative solutions emerge from learning and textual knowledge alone? Or are innovative ideas the outcome of a seeking, curious mind? A mind that is determined to think out of the box, persevere when things look bleak, have the patience to stay on the quest, and work as a collective to come to the desired outcome?

Soft skills, or power skills, as we see them, are the traits that shape how teams work. 

While hard or technical skills are needed to perform technical tasks, soft skills are essential to create a positive, enabling, and nurturing work environment. The importance of soft skills is often undervalued, but this is changing fast enough. 

The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report states that skills like creativity, complex problem solving, emotional intelligence, people management, critical thinking, and strategic thinking are some of the most important skills required in the workplace.  

Also Read: How Employees with Power Skills Give Companies A Competitive Advantage

Here is a list of some important soft skills that differentiate a great R&D team from a good one.

Customer Focus

R&D teams need to come up with path-breaking innovative solutions. This demands them to be creative thinkers. However, they also have to be highly customer-focused to come up with the right solutions to real-world problems.

Great R&D teams put the customer in the heart of their initiatives. They have the emotional intelligence and the capability to think and anticipate customer needs, understand their pain points and design, and realize what kind of a solution fits the clients’ narrative.  


When collaboration is driving the world, R&D teams are no exception. The great ones are the ones who do not operate in silos and isolation. They cannot be removed from the other departments of the organization and be expected to come up with path-breaking solutions.

Great R&D teams are aligned with organizational goals and objectives. They work and collaborate with other departments and teams to understand how to improve products, identify avenues and opportunities for new product development by evaluating variables such as customer pain points or technological evolution. These teams realize that ‘teamwork’ makes the teams work.

These teams are highly focused in their collaboration efforts and identify and design systems and processes that drive alignment and teamwork.

Persistence and Tenacity

These traits bring in the ‘never say die’ attitude on the table. The team members are highly motivated to seek out challenging work and areas for innovation keeping customer advocacy in mind. They are also future-focused and employ their creative and strategic thinking skills tenaciously to serve the customer better.  

However, persistence and tenacity do not just mean keeping at it when things get complicated or if a particular solution takes longer than expected to come to fruition. It also means possessing the ability to recognize when a particular effort is going down a dead end.

A great R&D team can tenaciously pursue a project. But it also knows when to press the breaks, take account of the situation, re-assess and re-evaluate and then get back on the road to discovery with no loss of enthusiasm.

Communication and Networking Skills

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes”, said Henry. J. Kaiser. 

Given that the modern workplace is interpersonal, R&D teams have to have strong networking and communication skills to identify these problems and convince the concerned stakeholders about why they need resolution.

No matter how great a solution, it has to be backed up with a strong argument. Great R&D teams have a great technical vocabulary, and they back this up with their communication and networking skills to navigate the complexities of the modern-day workplace. They ensure that their technical, communication, and networking vocabulary build strong arguments with understanding and empathy.


With the world being in a state of constant flux, there are always ideas for innovation. However, for this, the teams need emotional intelligence to identify pain points and challenges and be open to their evolution.

High-powered R&D teams have very high levels of emotional intelligence complementing their technical intelligence. This combination gives them the throughput to become more adaptable and responsive to the constant state of flux that envelops the entire business landscape. It is the adaptability that gives these teams the capacity to be productive, even when things get challenging.

Planning and Execution

“A goal without a plan is just a wish” – No matter how great an idea, it will exist only in an amorphous state in the absence of a plan that brings it to life.

Great R&D teams are also great at planning and execution. They approach innovation in a highly methodical and organized manner. They are aware of the importance of timelines and know that without clear planning and robust execution, achieving their goals is highly unlikely. 

These teams have exceptional delegation and organization skills. The teams are self-motivated, great at time management, and have high ownership levels complementing their accountability levels. The high accountability and ownership levels ensure that they stick to the execution schedule to ensure timely delivery of the project.


Leadership is almost an attitude in these teams – an attitude that helps each individual take complete ownership of their tasks, be helpful towards their teammates, and think as a collective and not as an individual. The leadership attitude helps all these team members remain invested in the project. 

Leadership skills such as decision making, intuitiveness to evaluate business and market trends, technology and product evolution, and customer demands, lead to powerful R&D initiatives. Great R&D teams empower all their team members with this leadership mindset – a mindset that makes them place the team above themselves.

Also Read: What Organizations MUST Do to Create Innovation Culture and Grow Strong R & D teams

A cursory glance makes it obvious that these soft skills contribute to the ‘greatness’ of a team. These soft skills, or rather, power skills, give teams the thrust they need to be successful in their outcomes. And ultimately, it is these skills that separate the ‘good’ from the ‘great’.

Are you coaching your R & D teams on these soft skills? With NumlyEngage™, you can deliver measurably greater employee engagement and employee & business growth through a structured approach to soft skills development for innovation in R&D.

Get a demo today

By Madhukar Govindaraju, Founder & CEO

Innovation in  business is imperative to stay viable, productive, and profitable, especially in a shrinking global market with increasing competition and rising customer demands. 

It is a top priority for organizations worldwide, irrespective of their size.  Organizations are trying to build high powered R&D teams to improve their competitiveness and stay ahead of the curve.

With innovation driving the world forward, organizations have realized that to have innovative R&D teams , the team members need to be ‘prepared’ for innovation. 

But how can organizations create teams that deliver best-in-class products and services and out-innovate competition?

Become more customer-focused

At one time, innovation and creativity were considered interchangeable. However, creativity is a notion where ideas are not bound by experiences or paradigms. Creativity does not necessarily have to translate into higher revenue or a new customer base. But then, it becomes a wasted effort. 

Innovation comes at the intersection of creativity and capitalism. It involves creating value through new ideas, new markets, and new combinations. The focus here is on ‘value’. And the customer always has to be in the heart of this value.

For innovation to drive business results, organizations have to make sure that their R&D teams develop a strong customer focus. They have to learn to be more receptive and intuitive towards anticipating customer needs and then proactively work towards creating products/services that meet and then exceed customer expectations.

Nurture collaboration

Innovation cannot happen in silos. It needs collaboration amongst teams, individuals, and different stakeholders. Close collaboration is essential between the sales marketing and R&D teams, for example, to understand customer pain points, existing issues with products, customer expectations, etc. 

To achieve this, organizations have to drive alignment and teamwork within the team, the department, and across the organizational boundaries. They have to create an environment where team members combine resources and put in joint efforts to achieve company-wide goals.

Drive for results and focus on end-to-end innovation

R&D teams now need to be more tenacious in their pursuit of positive outcomes. With the pace of innovation accelerating and thereby increasing competitiveness, the teams need to increase their capacity to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions for complex problems.

Focusing only on creative thinking and problem-solving is also not enough. Team members have to be programmed to actively look out and seek challenging work and avenues for innovation. They also need to have the commitment levels to ensure that deliveries happen as decided, and there is a high level of accountability towards all decisions and goals. 

Being result-oriented has become imperative for innovation.

Organizations have to focus on developing teams that deliver end-to-end-innovation. This involves having high-driven team members who approach innovation methodically by leveraging customer advocacy and developing their creative and strategic thinking skills to be more future-focused.

Influence for Impact

When Steve Jobs designed the iPod, no one thought it’d be a success. However, Job’s persuasiveness made sure the product got funding and was released in the market. The rest, as we know, is history.

R&D teams have to take a leaf out of the ‘Influencer’ playbook and work on improving their influencing game. Given the number of stakeholders present in an organization, R&D team members have to learn the art of persuasion by learning how to communicate and network effectively. This involves learning how to influence not only their own team members but also those who are not a part of their team. It is all building empathy, internalizing the art of understanding, and looking at things from the lens of the other person.

Organizational leadership and leadership maturity

There’s no better way to build a team than to ‘lead by example’. Organizations need to look at the leadership acumen of their team members and identify the high-potential employees who can fill their leadership pipeline. These employees need to have not only technical R&D skills but also strong power skills

Skills like decision making, understanding the impact of these decisions and actions on a system, communication of vision, intuitiveness to assess future market needs all become critical to building senior leaders who can effectively lead high-powered R&D teams.

Additionally, it is also important to focus on developing the leadership maturity of these teams. Helping the team members effectively manage self and relationships under stress, leading at scale, driving the leadership agenda through others, creatively applying a variety of approaches (as appropriate) for varied situations, displaying an executive presence are essential skills to develop.

Read: Brilliant Jerks or Passionate Leaders? What Does Your Workplace Foster?

Build adaptability, grit, and determination

Organizations looking at preparing R&D teams for innovation have to develop their team members’ intellectual capacity and prowess. 

The teams need to be more curious towards asking questions and identifying problems. They have to become more exploratory, creative, and flexible when identifying solutions. Innovation demands adaptability. It needs people to become more responsive towards changing demands and circumstances. It involves the ability to function productively in ambiguous situations and maintaining a constructive attitude in times of stress and having the resolve to see things through till the end.

Streamlined planning, organizing, and execution

Even the most innovative ideas fail to see the light of day in the absence of planning, organization, and robust execution. Innovation teams need strong managers who can create and drive plans to implement individual projects and programs.

Team managers have to work towards driving alignment across program stakeholders. Effective communication, setting clear goals and measurement metrics, proper delegation, and smart organization assist this process. Team managers also have to identify the individual needs of their team members that impede project progress and proactively help their team members navigate those gaps, be it by coaching, training, or mentoring.

In Conclusion 

While technical skills are imperative for R&D teams to increase R&D and innovation acumen, organizations need to look a little deeper. 

Having knowledge is one thing. Great outcomes only happen when this knowledge is applied in the correct and contextual way such that it creates differentiated value. 

For this, R&D teams have to increase their power skills vocabulary and develop skills such as empathy (to understand customer pain points), creative and strategic thinking skills, intuitiveness, adaptability, growth mindset, and problem-solving skills amongst others. 

R&D is the main source of value-generation for innovation-centered organizations. They need to identify critical skills and attributes of strong R&D teams and leaders, assess the gaps in them, and then design strong mentorship programs to develop these skills. Only then can they super-charge their R&D teams and boost their capacity for innovation.

Get a demo on how you can coach and train your R&D teams for world-class innovation.