There are areas in the research on teams where the findings are all very clear, as are the prescriptions for leaders. Creativity and innovation are not among them. We know how some factors affect creativity and innovation, but we’re only just beginning to understand some of the more complex relationships.
Creativity researchers usually make a distinction between creativity and innovation. Innovation involves two stages—the generation of new ideas and the implementation of the ideas. Creativity is considered to be the first stage of innovation. While we know a lot about both, there’s still not a lot of research to guide leaders.
Here are some of the key things that we do know contribute to innovation, based on a comprehensive meta-analysis:
- A compelling vision. Teams are more innovative when members have a common understanding of team objectives and are also committed to them. Clear and valued objectives can create meaning and motivation for team members.
- Goal interdependence. Goal interdependence is the extent to which team members can meet their goals only by having the other team members achieve their goals. An Olympic gymnastics team has low goal interdependence; team members can win individual medals even if the team wins no medal. An Olympic hockey team has high interdependence; the goal is achieved only by the full team, not by individual members. Goal interdependence leads team members to act toward each other in a way that creates mutual benefit. You create goal interdependence by setting objectives that must be achieved collectively and by addressing issues, including feedback, as a team.
- Support for innovation. Teams are more innovative when managers expect and approve of innovation, support members when their attempts to innovate are not successful, and recognize and reward new ideas and their implementation. This means encouraging risk and expecting failures.
- A task orientation. This is a shared concern for excellence that stems from the compelling vision. Teams with a task orientation set high performance standards, monitor their performance and provide each other feedback.
- A cohesive team. Cohesion represents commitment to the team and a desire to be part of the team. Researchers see cohesion as creating a psychologically safe environment that enables members to challenge each other and the status quo.
- Strong internal and external communication. Strong internal communication (between team members) allows for sharing knowledge and ideas, and creates a safe environment for providing feedback. External communication (communication with those outside the team) fosters innovation by learning from others and bringing new information into the team.
While these ideas may not be entirely surprising, don’t be misled by their familiarity; creating these conditions is still challenging work. Some of the factors we’re just starting to learn about that affect innovation are not obvious, and can even be counterintuitive. Here are three:
- What facilitates creativity can hinder innovation—and vice versa. Creativity and the second stage of innovation require different individual skills and team structures and processes. The idea generation stage is often referred to as divergent thinking or exploration. The implementation stage is often referred to as convergent thinking or exploitation. Unless you plan to have your team hand off its creative ideas, you will need to create a team that can operate in both modes, switching among them as appropriate.
- Diversity is a benefit that can have costs. Although it may seem intuitive that increasing team diversity increases creativity and innovation, the research shows mixed results. A recent meta-analysis to tease out the results found that cultural diversity increases creativity, but it also increases task conflict – that is, conflicts regarding the distribution of resources, procedures and policies, and interpretation of facts – and also reduces group cohesion. However, cultural diversity did not have any effect on team performance. Other research found that increasing the number of functional areas represented on a team created no significant difference in innovation. Still other research found that to gain a benefit from diversity within teams, team members need to take the perspective of those who differ from them. Just as the benefits of cultural diversity are not inevitable, neither are the costs. But avoiding these costs requires a commitment to understanding and intervening in the dynamics of diversity.
- You need the right level of conflict at the right time. Conflict has been considered a key factor in creativity and innovation but, here too, the research has found mixed results. Attempting to tease out this puzzle, one study of project teams found a curvilinear relationship, with creativity highest at moderate levels of task conflict. But this relationship occurred only at the early phase of a team’s life cycle; at later phases, task conflict was unrelated to team creativity. Here, the challenge for you and your team is to create a productive level of conflict.
The routes to team innovation are still being developed. There’s a lot that we know, and much more that researchers are striving to understand. To help maximize creativity on your own team, understand that the road to innovation isn’t always as straightforward as we may have once thought.
originally published December 2015 on Harvard Business Review