The Team Diversity Sweet Spot

Team diversity is conducive to innovation. When R&D project teams are composed of people with different skills, competencies and knowledge, the likelihood for new thinking and innovative solutions increase. However, too much diversity may lead to breakdown in communication and ensuing conflict. There is a sweet spot in how much diversity R&D teams should have.

Leaders should keep team member heterogeneity in mind when composing R&D project teams because of this following rule of thumb: Similar competences lead to similar thinking. In the innovation psychology research literature, evidence now suggests that project teams with innovation goals should be composed of individuals with different skill sets, proficiencies and knowledge backgrounds. The reason for this is that creativity flourishes when different perspectives are mixed together (Hülsheger, Anderson & Salgado, 2009).

Composing teams with heterogeneity in mind.

However, when team member heterogeneity becomes too high, conflict may arise. Differences between team members lead to communication difficulties and misunderstandings. This is generally a lesser problem with a homogenous team, where everybody ‘speaks the same language’. It’s just that in a team where people are too similar to each other, innovation is lower than it could be.

Thus, highly heterogeneous teams can be really innovative, but the diversity can backfire and teamwork collapse, effectively lowering innovation. On the other hand, highly homogenous teams often don’t have this problem, but they are generally not as innovative as they could be. Most likely, a “sweet spot” exists, where a moderate amount of diversity adds to the innovative mix (Hemlin, Martin & Allwood, 2008).

The role of leaders

An interesting study by Somech (2006) identifies the team leader as an important factor in how teams succeed in regard to innovation when they are too heterogeneous or homogenous. Somech studied 136 Israeli primary care teams and their implemented process innovations and could show that different leadership approaches were appropriate when teams were either too homogenous or too heterogeneous. So what should team leaders do?

When the team is too heterogeneous

In a heterogeneous team, the prerequisites for creativity and innovative solutions are more or less present, but the team leader needs to help team members to translate the advantages of heterogeneity. A way to do this is to realize that ideas will clash, and thus set ground rules that encourages and normalizes different perspectives in order to facilitate open and clear communication about the task and accompanying problems.

When the team is too homogenous

In this case communication and teamwork generally functions well, but in order to stimulate innovative outcomes, the team leader needs to actively stimulate new perspectives and thinking. For instance, this could be achieved by nominating a “devil’s advocate”, i.e. a role that questions existing thinking paradigms and forces the group to think differently. The leader can also start more structured processes like brainstorming or brain writing sessions to spark creative ideas.

By Leif Denti

About the author


Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti is also involved in a research project at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, studying organizational factors that may influence problem solving in project teams. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.

References

Hemlin, S., Allwood, C. M., & Martin, B. R. (2008). Creative knowledge environments. Creativity Research Journal, 20, 196–210.

Hülsheger, U. R., Anderson, N., & Salgado, J. F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1128–1145.

Somech, A. (2006). The effects of leadership style and team process on performance and innovation in functionally heterogeneous teams. Journal of Management, 32, 132–157.

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