Can Group Dynamics Curse Efforts to Cultivate Innovation?

By Pamela Babcock Feb 7, 2011

In his State of the Union address Jan. 25, 2011, President Barack Obama said innovation must play a key role in helping to reignite the country’s economic recovery. But recent research suggests that the state of corporate innovation might be as fragile as the nation’s economy.

Is Brainstorming Inefficient?

For organizations that thrive from developing new products or processes, group dynamics can be an enemy of the business, according to research from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The study—which included experiments conducted from 2006 to 2008—found that potential innovators should not enter a conference room for a team brainstorming session where “groupthink” might inhibit ideas; first, they should spend time alone coming up with their own ideas.

In their paper, Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea, published in June 2009, Wharton operations and information management professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich and co-author Karan Girotra, a professor of technology and operations management at international graduate business school INSEAD, wrote that giving people time to brainstorm on their own before discussing ideas with peers–which they called a “hybrid” process—produced more and better ideas than a traditional, team-oriented brainstorming process.

For the study, 44 students were divided into groups of four and asked to use the team and hybrid processes separately to come up with hypothetical sports and fitness and home-products that would appeal to students. Teams had 30 minutes to brainstorm using the traditional process and then spent 10 minutes generating and ranking ideas individually and 20 minutes discussing thoughts as a group for the hybrid process.

When ideas generated in their study were evaluated, the best idea that came from the “hybrid” brainstorming process topped the number one suggestion identified from the traditional brainstorming model. The upshot? When it comes to innovation, what really matters is not spewing forth a bunch of good ideas in a group brainstorming session, but getting one or two exceptional ones, Terwiesch said.

Idea Evaluation Stage Is Critical

Between them, Terwiesch and Ulrich have launched a scooter business, a teaching supply company for children’s science fairs and a web-based service for online idea management, called The Darwinator, which is a free tool designed to aid in innovation. And they’ve helped dozens of other organizations become more innovative. But Terwiesch said they were long frustrated with the inefficiency of the classic brainstorming process.

“The brainstorming myth has always been that you should build on each other’s ideas,” Terwiesch said. “We expected to see a productivity advantage from people working individually, but we thought that teams would make up for this through higher quality. That was not the case.”

Terwiesch said the evaluation stage is critical, particularly since there’s not much point generating a great idea if you don’t recognize it as such. But the study’s subjects all did significantly worse than researchers had hoped when it came to evaluating their ideas.

Students produced 443 ideas—everything from a water bottle with built-in filtration to a waterproofing system that lets you read in the shower and a trash can that reduces the odor of garbage. Ideas were rated on:

  • Business value.
  • Attractiveness to potential customers.
  • Overall quality based on feasibility.
  • Originality.
  • Potential market.
  • Extent to which it solved a problem.

The researchers found that the quality of ideas generated by the hybrid process were, on average, about 30 percentage points better than those from the team process. Similarly, the hybrid method spawned nearly three times more ideas than the traditional process.

Terwiesch said there are a couple of reasons people are less likely to offer an unbiased opinion in a team-based brainstorming process. For one thing, they might censor themselves to appear to go along with the status quo. Then there’s “build-up,” or the tendency to suggest ideas similar to ones already embraced by the group with hopes of being seen as a team player, Terwiesch added.

Terwiesch said most companies struggle with innovation at its very core, and lack processes to innovate using either method. That’s why companies looking to innovate should “create many ideas and try to tap into very different sources. This creates independent options that you can run through a tournament,” something Terwiesch and Ulrich described in their book, Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities (Harvard Business School Press, 2009),which recommends using competitions to filter top-rate proposals.

Value of Personal Reflection

Tojo Thatchenkery, professor and director of the Organizational Development and Knowledge Management master’s degree program at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy in Arlington, Va., said companies that are into innovation “don’t define innovation in terms of whether one is alone or in groups. They create a culture for innovation and a culture of individual autonomy—that’s how Google’s Desktop came about.”

Thatchenkery agreed that it’s good for people to have “reflection time” before they’re put in a group because, “when you put people in a brainstorming session, there is often a lot of pressure. People who are generally quiet or introverted often do not speak up.”

Thatchenkery teaches and consults on a methodology called appreciative intelligence (AI). Through AI, companies look deeply at themselves, reflecting on what they do well and then work to find the best ways to replicate those “rights” throughout the organization.

Groups work best when there is reframing “to bring out the best in people” and to create a more “appreciative climate” that allows companies to see things positively and [that] encourages innovation, said Thatchenkery.

“If the leader or team leader can reframe and bring out what is working in the group dynamics, then it will work to the benefit of innovation,” he said.

Leadership and an organizational culture can stifle innovation when there’s “a deficit approach” that focuses on “what we don’t have and what we are lacking,” Thatchenkery said. “If a team leader brings a group of people together and says we are really behind and we don’t do this well and we don’t do that well, it’s actually not going to help because you can focus on the deficits so much that it can amplify them.”

A different leader or facilitator can create “positive design,” said Thatchenkery, author of the book Positive Design and Appreciative Construction (2010, Emerald Group Publishing), which describes how positive design can be applied to creating sustainable value and innovation. Positive design in innovation helps leaders design organizations “to bring out the best in people by having an organizational structure that allows them to communicate nonhierarchically, and to imagine the possibilities of the future vs. focusing on the limitations of the past,” Thatchenkery said.

Makings of Great Innovation Teams

Kim E. Ruyle, Ph.D., SPHR, vice president of research & development at Korn/Ferry International Leadership and Talent Consulting in Minneapolis, Minn., said the best innovation teams are homogenous in terms of values, heterogeneous in backgrounds, “but with deep expertise in different areas.”

Case in point: Think about some of the greatest symphonies ever written. “Mozart was incredibly creative and talented,” said Ruyle, member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Organizational Development special expertise panel. “But to commercialize what he had written and to bring it forward, you need an orchestra and a conductor. Not to mention, the people who make up the orchestra have very different skills—the violinist and the horn player are part of a group of “deep experts who do almost all of their work individually and then they come together and produce something as a team.”

Creativity and innovation are closely related but require fundamentally different skill sets, Ruyle said. “Creativity is generating new and novel approaches to problems, whereas innovation is driving those ideas to commercialization,” he said, noting that “innovation management is in very short supply.”

The team leader plays a critical role as does organizational support for the team. Team leaders need to provide motivation and vision and connect the dots. “The team leader is the connective tissue between the people on the team,” Ruyle said. “It’s a tough job, especially if you have virtual teams.”

Cultural factors often stand in the way of an innovation team’s effectiveness. “Tolerance for risk is a huge thing, as is how the organization rewards and reinforces innovation and how they deal with failure,” Ruyle said.

Assessments can be done at the individual and team levels to ensure that the best personal attributes are present among innovation team members. Korn/Ferry has a model that addresses whether team goals are clear, the right skill sets and processes are in place, the right leaders [are on board] and whether the organization bureaucracy “is out of the way,” explained Ruyle.

It’s key to make sure that innovation team members—and everyone in the company for that matter—believe that they are in an environment that fosters creativity and promotes innovation. Like in the orchestra, “the first chair violinist probably has a strong ego. But when you’re playing together in that symphony, you can’t bring your ego in at that point,” Ruyle said.

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.


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