Finding the right place for your team

August 19, 2006

A recent WSJ article has me thinking about which settings or places are most advantageous for various team activities. The article points to the growing trend for organizations to conduct business at company events traditionally devoted to social interaction – the company picnic. The main rationales for adding “work” activities to the social agenda appear to be to defend against charges of corporate excess and to maximize value considering the high costs, in dollars and time, of bringing everyone together.

It strikes me that organizations may also be able to achieve better results by undertaking certain activities in social settings than might be achieved in traditional business settings. Some of the most creative and innovative ideas are generated when teams are in more relaxed settings, outside of normal workplaces. That makes brainstorming, in particular, a good candidate for settings with a high social component. Another good activity is early project planning, which often requires creative thinking about the current and future needs of a project and exploration of alternatives for meeting those needs.

To add another angle, I have already discussed Troy Worman’s great post about teamwork and synergy. Here is what Troy says about the role of “place”.

[Synergy] is not the product of conference rooms or sterile laboratories. Rather, it is the stuff of garages and coffee houses, places where individuality and diversity of thought flourish…

Combining thoughts from the company picnic article and synergy post, consider this hypothesis: By performing certain activities in social settings, teams can experience greater synergy and achieve better results. Although I am not aware of definitive research testing this hypothesis, anecdotal experience suggests that teams can often achieve positive outcomes on both goals.

What have been your experiences? How important do you see place when it comes to building teamwork and synergy and producing results in creative thinking, strategic planning, and other non-routine team activities?

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Yet another article about the limits of teamwork for creativity

July 20, 2006

Last month the WSJ ran an article suggesting that team brainstorming was not as effective as generating ideas individually.

Typically, group brainstormers perform at about half the level they would if they brainstormed alone.

Now a new Reuters article, Workplace focus on individual fuels creativity, makes a similar argument.

The WSJ article was roundly, and rightly, refuted by many, including Stanford professor Bob Sutton. Sutton focused on the studies behind the article with his main critiques including:

  • Studies that only measure the number of ideas generated miss important aspects such as the quality of ideas or organizational commitment to them.
  • College students, used in virtually all the studies, are unlikely to be as effective at brainstorming as more experienced workers.
  • None of the studies examined real organizations in which brainstorming is a routine work practice.
  • Studies seem to present choices as an “either/or” proposition, whereas innovative organizations know they need both group brainstorming and individual idea generation.

This latest article seems susceptible to all the same critiques Sutton made regarding the WSJ article. The article is based on a study recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, which concluded that groups with an individualistic culture can be more creative and innovative than groups with a collectivistic culture. The researchers conducted experiments with teams of college students and that creativity was measured in terms of the number of ideas generated, the creativity of the ideas generated, and group performance in identifying and selecting the most creative ideas for implementation.

The key finding was that individualistic groups generated 37 ideas on average compared to an average of 26 ideas by collectivistic groups working collectively. Other findings were that individualistic groups generated ideas that were more creative and performed better in identifying and selecting their most creative ideas, compared to their collectivistic counterparts.

The researchers concluded that a collectivistic culture can actually inhibit creativity.

“The more you emphasize collectivity and team membership and orientation, the lower is the creativity,” [one of the researchers Barry] Staw said. “So much of creativity is being different, being willing to deviate and take chances and be the odd person out.”

“If you want innovation, you have to seek out the person who is different and the person who is not like everyone else,” said Staw.

“There will be costs,” he added. “You may have to tolerate people who are kind of jerks. Some of the most innovative people can be people who don’t get along very well in social situations and may be people you don’t want to spend a lot of time with.”

The article makes the valid point that some individuals working alone within their organizations can be effective at generating useful ideas. Indeed, we are all familiar with the notion of the “idea man.” However, innovation relies not only on idea generation, but also on a group of people turning ideas into new products, services, or processes. There will be times when organizations need more practical and actionable ideas, and situations when the most creative, divergent innovations are desirable. The article notes these varying demands, quoting a workplace consultant who points out that individualism is not so desirable or appropriate in many organizations.

But not every place needs hundreds of new ideas. At a lot of places, it’s more important that everyone coordinates and is on the same page and knows what each other is doing and aren’t left out of the loop.

Organizations need both new ideas and coordinated, collaborative efforts to exploit those ideas. New ideas that are generated by, and filtered through, groups within the organization will have a substantial leg-up when it comes to operationalizing and implementing the idea.

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