How to Increase Innovation in Diverse Teams
“Stupid people can work together easily, smart people can never work together.”
— Jack Ma, Co-founder of Alibaba Group.
Jack Ma’s words at the World Economic Forum really struck a chord with me and prompted a question in my mind: Why do smart people have such difficulty working together?
The answer I came up with was: Diversity. Talented, creative, intelligent individuals tend to clash because they all have strongly different viewpoints.
That doesn’t mean diverse teams aren’t worth the trouble. The pay-offs can be great. In fact, you need diversity to innovate. As Dave McClure of 500 startups has said, every startup needs a hacker, a hustler and a designer. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is probably why leaders often try to create teams with as much diversity as possible — to ensure each member is able to contribute uniquely valuable perspectives to the group.
Because of the pros and cons of diversity in teams, the research is divided on the relationship between team diversity and innovation. Nevertheless, this points to the fact that diversity alone doesn’t equate to innovation. Rather, it is the management of diversity that is the key to allowing creativity to flourish in teams. As Jack Ma said, his job was to make sure the smart people on his team worked together.
Fortunately, a recent review by Min Tang, PhD., Institute for Creativity and Innovation, University of Applied Management, has given us insight into the VICTORY model, which is a framework for encouraging innovation in diverse teams. The model distinguishes between non-cognitive (Vision, Openness, Risk-taking, Yes-I-Can Mindset), cognitive (Ideation, Combination) and environmental (Team) factors.
The VICTORY model was specifically developed with team creativity, as opposed to individual creativity, in mind.
Dr. Tang stresses that there’s a big difference between being a group and a team. And getting members to realize this is essential to increasing team creativity.
A group can be a collective of people without any purpose or direction. A team on the other hand, has shared goals. Each member, and the interactions between members, contributes to the accomplishment of the goals.
Dr. Tang also adopts the framework of “Total Involvement Management” in her creativity trainings with teams. Team members are encouraged to participate in every stage of the creativity process — from idea generation, organization, management and decision making.
“The rationale behind this is that people are more motivated and creative if they are given more trust, autonomy, and freedom in organizing themselves and accomplishing tasks,” writes Dr. Tang.
When the group has formed an identity as a team, the direction that a team takes is determined by its shared vision. It is especially important in diverse teams, as it provides a common direction to individuals who may have otherwise envisioned different goals for the team.
Having a clear team vision that is communicated and internalized by members is a major predictor of innovation, as it provides a direction for creativity.
“The ability to visualize and communicate a bold future state for an organization has always been a vital component of successful leadership,” writes Dr. Tang.
Are your teams goals and objectives clear and actionable? Has it been communicated and internalized by everyone? Check out this article for ideas on how to create a team vision.
Innovations are more likely to happen if team members perceive that the organization is open to novel ideas. And if the ideas are selected, that there will be support from leaders and colleagues in the implementation of ideas.
A critical part of fostering openness is creating an environment of open communication, where ideas are encouraged and differences in opinion are respected.
Mindful communication is an effective way of creating an open relational environment in teams.
“To create something new, one needs to step out of the comfort zone, defy the crowds, deviate from the social norms, and get ready for failure,” writes Dr. Tang.
Creativity always comes with some form of risk — it could be a threat to our ego from fear of getting our ideas shut down. Or fear that we could risk losing that promotion to a colleague with a better idea. But without risk, the benefits of creativity cannot be realized.
In order to mitigate the fear aspect of taking risks, the team setting needs to provide psychological safety for members to feel supported when coming up with novel ideas.
In Dr. Tang’s creativity trainings, she designs unusual group tasks (e.g. decorating the seminar room like a kindergarten) to foster this environment of being comfortable with strange situations. The main purpose is to reduce inhibitions in people, which is a major obstruction to creativity.
At an organisational level, the saying about self-fulfilling prophesies hold true as well. This study showed that when leaders believed in the creative abilities of the team, followers felt more confident in their own creative abilities. This ultimately led to increased creativity levels in the team.
Dr. Tang writes that in her creativity trainings, she shares research about how creativity is a learnable skill and that it is demonstrated in different forms. Bringing such insights to teams can change their perspective on what creativity is and isn’t. It may even help some to step into creative domains that they may not have ventured into.
Leaders have an important role to play in the creative process. Not only as idea generators. But also as confidence boosters in the team’s ability to innovate.
Coming up with actual ideas is a logical part of the innovative process. But the generations of ideas is only part of the puzzle. “Ideational creativity involves generating, evaluating, and selecting novel ideas,” writes Dr. Tang.
The process of ideation can be best navigated when it is guided by a facilitator and given set guidelines and prompts, especially when it comes to the evaluation and selection phase. When dealing with diverse groups, having clear group goals and objectives is important so that it can be the guiding factors for idea selection.
And as opposed to the traditional group brainstorm (with the giant sheets of paper and multi-colored markers), Dr. Tang recommends brainwriting. This involves getting everyone to write down their own ideas on a card, and passing on the card to the next person to build on what the previous person wrote.
Brainwriting is a great way to reduce some of the issues (e.g social anxiety, time wasting and social loafing) associated with traditional verbal group brainstorming.
People often think of the creative process as people having “eureka” moments. But in actual fact, the final masterpiece is often based on multiple ideas in history that are synthesized and built upon to reach the final “novel” outcome.
At a group level, the creative combination of ideas and information can only come about with proper communication.
“In order to generate novel, useful suggestions for outcomes and achieve team innovation, information should be shared, combined and constructively dialogued,” writes Dr. Tang.
Her trainings assist groups in setting up regular meetings to aid in the exchange of information. She also recommends mixing up the combination of group members to enable unique and unexpected exchanges. This could involve putting people of the same culture, but different specialities together, or the other way round.
The factors in the VICTORY model aren’t static, and will need to work together for teams to see its effectiveness. For example, the ideation process is most productive if the group has a clear idea of the organizational vision.
When done correctly, the diversity in teams can lead to amazing innovative outcomes. The good news is that team creativity isn’t left to chance, where we pray that a spontaneous conversation between two members will lead to the next big innovation. It is a process that can be actively encouraged and managed with the right framework.