More and more organizations like yours are putting together teams to take charge of innovative projects. This is a good thing. Under the right circumstances, a team can be significantly more creative than any individual team member and is often better able to push creative ideas through the implementation process so that they may become innovations.
If you wanted to come up with some creative dessert ideas, you wouldn’t fill up a creative team with a dozen chocolate cake experts, would you? You would bring in experts in cakes, ice cream, candy, cookies, bread and probably some expert eaters as well. Likewise, when you want a creative team to work on new marketing ideas, don’t limit its population to marketing people. Bring in people from different divisions. A greater diversity of team members provides a wider range of experience, skills and thinking patterns and that results in a higher level of creativity.
If you offer the entire team a reward for its creative ideas, they are motivated work together as a team to devise and develop creative ideas – and win rewards. When you reward individuals within the team for their creative ideas, they are motivated to act selfishly in order to win rewards. At best, that would probably include hiding information from fellow team members. At worst it might include stealing ideas and deception. Almost certainly, it will result in bad feelings when people see team-mates rewarded while they are not.
Over time, team members learn to understand each other. They “share common language and a common set of unspoken understandings”, which psychologists call “tacit knowledge.” This tacit knowledge facilitates easy communication flow and – provided the right impetus is there – makes it easy to be creative. Likewise, the team develops an identity and hence pride in their performance.
After about two years or so, however, team members get to know each other too well. And with over-familiarization comes predictability and possibly even boredom. Thus, it is good to give teams time to jell, but bad to keep them together for too long. Ideally, you should mix and match team members every 18 to 24 months.
Teams can learn from each other. Someone outside the team may see something in a problem that team members fail to see, simply because they are too close to the issue at hand. Alternatively, team A may look at an innovation challenge from a different perspective than team B and so be able to suggest alternative paths of problem solving. Hence, it is important to bring teams together and encourage inter-team communication. Nevertheless, it is also critical to ensure that teams do not get bogged down in inter-team meetings or report writing that detracts from creative problem solving. That said, I recommend periodic grand brainstorming meetings where teams summarize their work and other teams can provide suggestions.
Many managers pit teams together in highly competitive situations hoping to motivate team members to push themselves harder. I am not sure that is a good thing. Excess stress has been shown not to be conducive to creativity – and heavy competition often results in heavy stress. On the other hand, good humor competition or even rivalry between teams adds a competitive edge with minimal stress. Moreover, friendly rivalry can make things more fun. And fun is almost always conducive to creativity.
In order to ensure teams extract the maximum creative potential from their teams, it is important that team leaders understand the basics of group creativity. This should include an understanding of creative problem solving methodology, motivating team members to be creative, keeping criticism in check (until the appropriate time), idea generation methods, and evaluation methods. A highly critical team leader can destroy a large team’s creative potential very quickly. On the other hand, a motivating team leader can push people to think more creatively than ever.
If two team members have problems with each other, the team leader or a senior manager (particularly if the team leader is part of the problem) needs to solve the conflict quickly. In-group fighting between two or more members can destroy group dynamics, cause team members to take sides and eat up time that should be devoted to creativity and innovation. If worse comes to worst, move one of the conflictees to another team.
Hierarchies can cause problems in teams – particularly in hierarchical or bureaucratic organizations. Team members will always look to their superiors for approval and this tends to result in generating ideas to please superiors rather than generating ideas that are truly creative. There are two alternatives. You can either build teams of people who are at similar levels within the hierarchy, or you can establish basic team rules to discourage playing to the hierarchy. Better still, do both!
Conference rooms with beanbag chairs, toys, lots of paper, pens and the like are far more inspirational than the usual bland table and chairs. Lego, building blocks and other toys can be used for creating models of material products as well as of processes and methods. As a result, they can be used for visual brainstorming – which can be far more effective than spoken brainstorming. Even a small library of books, journals and other literature is highly useful.
Teams should be given goals to pursue and be allowed to establish their own paths to achieve those goals. Moreover, they should be encouraged to get away from the office and explore external creative stimuli. Spending a couple of hours in an art gallery, brainstorming in a science museum or going for a group walk in the woods can all help clear minds and inspire thinking. Very little corporate creativity blossoms in cubicles or stuffy conference rooms.
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.
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