Group dynamics can stifle innovation


For most companies, conventional wisdom says that collaborative teams offer the best path to generating compelling innovation.  Behind this notion is that high-performance and diverse groups are best suited to cope with technology complexity, commercialization challenges and  as well as stick handle through management gates such as securing buy-in and resources.  In fact, I have argued this point in my blog on a number of occasions.  A recent Wharton research paper suggests that other innovation strategies could be more effective.

Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich contend that common group dynamics are anathema to developing breakthrough products, unique ways to save money or revolutionary business models. Instead, they believe the next Facebook, Twitter or iPad could best be germinated by an inspired innovator with plenty of time to ponder and experiment.  If this approach sounds familiar, it has been the modus operandi for some of the most famous inventors including Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Steve Jobs.

The researchers undertook a series of experiments to understand which of two different innovation processes – the conventional team-centered model and a hybrid individual/team approach – delivered the greatest number of high quality new product ideas. In the traditional model, peers were encouraged to collaborate to produce new ideas. With the hybrid approach, individuals were first encouraged to brainstorm and refine new ideas by themselves and then to present them to a group for vetting and elevation.

The study concluded that the hybrid process resulted in three times more ideas than the team-based process.  More importantly, the findings also showed that the hybrid approach generated (on average) significantly better quality ideas, including the most preferred idea in the experiment. These findings run counter to current innovation best practice which stresses team-focused models.
 
A hybrid process is more successful because it can mitigate the harmful effects of group dynamics and catalyze more “out of the box” thinking. According to the authors, group dynamics can harm the innovation process in many ways.  For example, in brainstorming sessions several people can quickly dominate a conversation often restricting the sharing of all potential ideas. In other cases, individuals may think less critically about a problem because they are happy to let others do the heavy lifting.  And, those people who lack confidence or internal credibility are more likely to practice self-censorship within peer groups.   Finally, groups can be a breeding-ground for organizational barriers such as cultural norms and management bias that limit creativity and critical thinking.
 
Multi-functional collaboration among diverse, smart and passionate individuals remains an important means to filter and refine the most exceptional ideas. To minimize the negative effects of groups and organizational dynamics while still encouraging collaboration, firms can deploy a number of powerful methodologies and tools.  These could include innovation tournaments – where ideas compete for attention and resources within a transparent and objective process – as well as an “online suggestion box” where ideas can be independently and anonymously evaluated.

The research’s conclusion is not to eliminate collaboration.  Rather, it suggests that an individual’s creativity needs to be fostered and protected early on in the innovation process before group dynamics can limit choice and quality.  It will be interesting to see  if these conclusions are supported by real-life experience.

For more information on our services and work, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alltop Facebook, Christophe. Christophe said: Group dynamics can stifle innovation « Mitchell Osak Online: Behind this notion is that high-perform… http://bit.ly/hLnppm #innovation […]


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