The dynamics of a creative team

Published at Innovation Excellence, August 25, 2015 (http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2015/08/25/the-dynamics-of-a-creative-team/) 

In my research of creativity in startup and mature companies I found that the ability of the team to hold productive debates was critical to that team’s creativity level. Not only that individuals in the team were more creative, but team members were building on each other’s ideas to come up with even better ideas. Where such debate could not be held, it was replaced with political correctness, personal conflicts, and internal competition, which were not conducive to creativity, and led to very low levels of innovation. These findings were supported by research done before mine by Amabile, Isaksen, and others. For more about the link between debate and creativity, see my previous article “Why are we so afraid to argue, and how does it affect our creativity?”.

In order to hold an open debate, there must be trust among team members. How often have you prefixed a questions with “this might be a stupid question?” How many times was the answer “there is no such thing as a stupid question?” Well, I’m here to tell you that there are stupid questions. Many of mine are. The problem is that I don’t know before I ask whether this is going to be a stupid question or not. I will take the risk if I trusted my teammates, and knew I will not be ridiculed, made fun of, or that my stupid questions (or the fact that I asked them) would be leaked to others outside the team. When I feel that trust, I will ask any question. If my question was a stupid one–so be it! But if my question was not stupid–isn’t asking the right question 80% of the solution?

In his book “The speed of trust” Stephen M.R. Covey listed factors that affect trust in many levels. In the interpersonal level he focused on character (integrity and intent), and competence (capabilities and results).

What makes us trust other team members? It starts with our perception of their competence in being able to do their respective jobs, and our shared values (or character, as Covey referred to it, made of integrity and intent). We will never trust a team member we don’t believe is competent in doing their job or who does not share our values. These are the foundation for trust.

But if we do believe they are competent and share our values, do we inherently and immediately trust them? Enough to have an open debate with them without being afraid to ask stupid questions in their presence? The answer is NO. From the moment we start respecting their competence and shared values and until we begin trusting them, time must pass. Not just a week or so. Often it takes years for that respect to turn into trust. It will typically become trust when we have a certain level of predictability of each other’s behavior. We fear unpredictable people, and until enough time has passed in our relationship for them to become predictable to us–we wouldn’t trust them.

Participant 7 (why bother with a fake name?…) in my study joined a large company as part of an acquisition. He was a marketing person, and described the R&D team as “a bunch of people trying to pull themselves out of the pack and get recognition so they can move up the organization.” He was located in the Pacific US, and they were in Israel, a 10-hour time zone difference. He was American born, and they were Israelis. This scenario had all the ingredients to prevent trust. And, sure enough, he did not trust them and they did not trust him. However, three years later he left, and described the team at the startup company as very cohesive. He trusted that team, and was trusted by them. Most of the factors remained: he was still in the Pacific US, and this was again a team in Israel, with a similar 10-hour time zone difference. Surprisingly, though, it was exactly the same team! They all left the large company to start that startup! This time he felt “one of the guys.” What changed? Three years together. In those three years (in the large company), he learned to respect their competencies and they learned to respect his. They realized they shared values, and all that was needed for trust to emerge was the three years together.

Can anything be done to expedite the process? We may not afford to wait years before a team starts becoming creative. Surprisingly, the answer is YES. I counted three factors that would have a positive effect on shortening that time, and three that would have a negative effect. On the positive side: pre-existing friendships would expedite that time from respect to trust. Typically because trust was already established between the two (or more) team members, as that trust was likely a prerequisite for that friendship. But we are rarely at a positive to have a team of friends. A Life-altering event shared by team members would also expedite that time, provided that they did not let each other down during that event. One reason for such high levels of trust among team members in Israel is the fact that most of them served in the military together, possibly even during a war. Trusting your life in somebody else’s hands during a war certainly qualifies as the trust required for team creativity. However, I am not proposing inducing life-altering events on team members just to expedite the formation of trust among them. Bonding and team building activities could help, and are within our control. They might expedite the building of trust at a slower rate, but will still expedite it, possible from years to months, and maybe even weeks, depending on the intensity of those team building activities, and the extent to which trust was required in them. On the other hand, cultural differences could sometimes hamper the development of trust, as they might cause team members to misunderstand others and their behaviors. Geographical separation of team members can also slow down the transition from respect to trust, because team members rarely meet face to face, and may communicate much less than if they were co-located, and especially when they are in different (sometimes very different) time zones. Face to face meetings are very important for the development of trust, and so does the amount of time actually shared together. Finally, churn within team (voluntary or not) can slow down the process. Several participants in my creativity research linked the company churn (intentional or not) to their lack of trust in other team members. Every time new members joined the team, they were treated with suspicion and the overall openness in the team, so important to creativity, was reduced, even among the long-time members of the team. One large consumer electronic manufacturer intentionally forced shuffling of employees among different business units, hoping that those changes will spark innovation. While the diversity resulting from such changes could positively affect creativity, it also caused a lack of trust, internal turf wars, and prevented the open and free debate required for a highly creative team. That lack of creativity and innovation was undoubtedly one of the causes of that company’s dramatic decline from greatness.

Summary

The headline image was captured with penveu (www.penveu.com)

The headline image was captured with penveu (www.penveu.com)

In order to achieve high levels of team creativity, each team member must feel respect to other team members’ competence and share their values (when I say “must,” I don’t mean “be forced to”). That respect will turn into the predictability that will lead to trust. The time required to turn respect into trust could be shortened through pre-existing friendships, life-altering events, or intentionally through bonding and team building activities. And once trust is established, open debate (“ask stupid questions”) occurs, and creativity emerges.

image credit: JD Hancock