Why Team Creativity Wanes - and How to Boost It

Dec 14, 2015
6 Min Read

Innovative companies often grow rapidly, dazzling customers with creative ideas. The bottom line begins to reflect that success, and the organization’s teams receive a jolt of confidence.

Then, it happens.

The creativity starts to wane. The profits are less robust.

What’s going wrong?

Surprisingly, a new study reveals the problem may be self-confidence and growth.

Specifically, when teams become successful, they have a tendency to hang onto ideas that have worked in the past, repeating the actions that they have seen bring about success. They don’t explore new ideas or methods or tap into creativity that might lead to more innovations or breakthroughs.

“When you’re highly self-confident, you don’t pay much attention to evidence to the contrary,” says Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Emeritus James G. March, who did the study with Andrew W. Marshall and Mie Augier of the Naval Postgraduate School.

The subject of the study, RAND Corp., is cited as an innovative company that grew from 225 employees with a $3.5 million annual budget in 1948 to 1,100 employees with a more than $20 million annual budget in 1962. Over time, employees started hanging around only with people they knew. By not mingling freely, they weren’t exposed to new ideas, researchers say.

At the same time, the research finds that RAND – like many other big organizations -- felll into the habit of hiring those who conform to their conventional methods and don’t challenge the status quo. The employees who wanted to be more creative took their ideas elsewhere and the number of bureaucrats and administrators at RAND blossomed. Red tape, researchers say, squashed intellectual creativity.

“The larger organizations become, they become better and better at eliminating that element of innovation, unless they work to save it,” Augier says.

At this point, it may be helpful to remember that innovation and creativity are not synonyms. Confusing the terms may lead teams to take the wrong action to correct the lack of creativity.

“Usually, managers equate innovation with creativity. But innovation is not creativity. Creativity is about coming up with the big idea. Innovation is about executing the idea — converting the idea into a successful business,” says Vijay Govindarajan, author of “Reverse Innovation.”

So what can companies do to keep creativity thriving while maintaining an innovative edge?

Researchers suggest:

  • Embracing the long term. Help teams understand that it’s OK to explore other options and that long-range thinking is important. Let them know that exploration often can pay off in the long run, and they shouldn’t always be rushing for quick results.
  • Fostering a culture of learning. RAND began hiring people interested more in financial rewards or career gains instead of those interested in the research and advancing new ideas. That culture turned off those who could have brought more creativity to the organization.

Other research sheds even more light on how to spark creativity in teams.

Specifically, a University of Michigan study finds that workers who are treating team members with respect can spark greater creativity.

The researchers focused on “respectful engagement,” defined by behaviors such as recognizing another person, understanding and appreciating them, listening, attending to needs and emphasizing someone’s good qualities.

In four studies, researchers from Michigan and Tel Aviv University found that respectful engagement yields results at the individual and team levels.

“Since individuals spend the majority of their time from the age of 20 to 70 in organizations and relationships are central to the meaning of being, relationships in the workplace are of paramount importance,” researchers say.  “They are the seed-corn for important human accomplishments such as creativity.”

Experts also suggest assessing a team’s “intellectual diversity” to spur greater productivity. For example, ask team members questions such as:

  • What’s your work history, both at this company and in previous jobs?
  • What’s your educational background? What did you study in college or for an advanced degree?
  • What strengths do you have, and what do oth­ers say you do well?
  • What are your passions and hobbies?

“The sales manager who is interested in art history may be your best big-picture thinker. The sound engineer who used to work as a stage director might bring expertise to the management of the creative process. And the marathon runner can bring grit and commitment to your team, motivating others when times get tough,” researchers suggest.

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