Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fostering Team Creativity

Many extraordinary innovations are the product not of individual strokes of genius, but rather cooperation among highly skilled individuals working toward a common goal. As technology grows more advanced and intricate, and groundbreaking innovation requires an increasingly sophisticated skill set, the power of co-creation is only becoming more essential. Exemplary creative teams often benefit from a diversity of skills, passions, and expertise, and a work environment that allows each member of the collective to shine.

A leadership style conducive to innovation.

As management scholar and Harvard business professor Linda Hill explained in a 2014 TED talk, a top-down style of leadership is seldom consistent with the freedom of thought and expression that enables creative minds to flourish. But a total absence of structure isn’t helpful either.

Hill offers several examples of firms with work environments conducive to collective innovation, including computer animation studio Pixar, and search engine giant Google. Hill and her research partners have concluded that managers at these firms embrace an unconventional style of leadership—one which conceives of the boss as a connector and social architect, rather than a commander-in-chief. Or as Hill says, “Our role as leaders is to set the stage, not to perform on it.”

Development teams at Pixar typically include around 250 members, who spend between four and five years composing a single film. Once the team has established its overall objective (to produce an animated movie with a particular storyline, characters, and themes), the process and details are somewhat flexible. Importantly, effective managers of creative projects do not presume that their own vision is superior in all respects to the potentially conflicting ideas and expertise of the other team members. In any project of this magnitude, unanticipated challenges are also likely to arise, which may require improvised solutions.

The physical design and layout of the workplace is a crucial factor as well. The members of a creative team must have enough isolated space to pursue their own trains of thought, but enough common space to allow discussion and engagement. Instead of consensus and conformity, a manager who aims to promote creativity shouldn’t be afraid to allow constructive debate, and even constructive conflict. The leader’s role in these situations is to moderate the discussion, rather than attempt to influence the entire team toward a single point of view.

Creative abrasion, agility, and resolution.

Hill believes many organizations that display high levels of team creativity have mastered three over-arching abilities.

  Creative abrasion is the frequent meeting of minds in the workspace, which may sometimes culminate in confrontation. The role of a manager at this stage is to amplify voices that might not otherwise receive a fair hearing, and engender a respectful marketplace of ideas.

  Creative agility is the testing of ideas and concepts on a small scale in order to ascertain possible solutions to problems. The immediate goal of this is twofold—to examine the viability of those ideas in practice, and refine them by identifying practical shortcomings. This is an experimental, trial-and-error process, and team members should understand it as such.

  Creative resolution is the decision-making process by which the members of a creative team collectively determine a path forward. This may require integration of conflictual or divergent ideas. However, Hill believes managers should discourage team members from “going along to get along”, accepting compromises they find unsatisfactory.

In sum, successful leaders of creative teams don’t necessarily “lead” in the conventional sense; instead, they aim to provide fertile soil for the emergence of ingenuity.