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Ten Rules for Innovative Teams

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Teams can drive innovation or they can stifle it. In the best teams, members collaborate to build ever more creative ideas and then push forward to realise those ideas. In the worst teams, group think takes hold and people are afraid to propose anything unusual.

Assuming you prefer your teams to be innovative, here are ten things you can do to ensure your teams are innovative.

1. Diversity

This is the single most important element of an innovative team: you need diversity.

If you wanted to come up with some creative dessert ideas, you wouldn't fill up a creative team with a dozen chocolate cake experts, would you? You would bring in experts in cakes, ice cream, candy, cookies, bread and probably some expert eaters as well. Likewise, when you want a creative team to work on new marketing ideas, don't limit its population to marketing people. Bring in people from different divisions. Bring in men and women. Bring in people of different races and from different places.

A greater diversity of team members provides a wider range of experience, skills and thinking patterns and that results in a higher level of creativity.

2. Reward the Team, not the Individual

If you offer the entire team a reward for its creative ideas, individual team members are motivated to collaborate to devise and develop creative ideas – and win rewards for the team.

When you reward individuals within the team for their creative ideas, they are motivated to act selfishly in order to win rewards for themselves. This can lead team members to keep information to themselves, not look for team feedback on their ideas and, in a worst case scenario, steal colleagues' ideas and claim those ideas for themselves. Almost certainly, there will be bad feelings when people see team-mates rewarded while they are not.

3. Teams Are not Forever

Over time, team members learn to understand each other. According to Keith Sawyer, in his book Group Think, team members “share common language and a common set of unspoken understandings”, which psychologists call “tacit knowledge” . This tacit knowledge facilitates easy communication flow and − provided the right impetus is there − makes it easy to be creative. Likewise, the team develops an identity and hence pride in their performance.

After about two years or so, however, team members get to know each other too well. And with over-familiarisation comes predictability and possibly even boredom. Thus, it is good to give teams time to jell, but bad to keep them together for too long. Ideally, you should mix and match team members every 18-24 months.

4. Establish Processes for Inter-Team Communication

Teams can learn from each other. Two teams may be working on related problems. By sharing experiences and ideas, both teams can benefit. In some cases, a member of team A may have knowledge that would be extremely useful for team B. If teams do not communicate with each other, opportunities are lost, important knowledge is unshared and, in all too many cases, multiple teams may be working on the same problem.

As a result, it is important to bring teams together and encourage inter-team communication. But, of course, you need to to ensure that teams do not get bogged down in inter-team meetings or report writing that detracts from problem solving.

An approach I have used is for each teams to select an individual as an ambassador. A team's Ambassador is sent to sit in with another team for a few days and then returns to her original team. This enables her to share ideas with the new team and bring ideas from the new team to her original team.

5. Encourage Good Humoured Rivalry

Many managers pit teams together in highly competitive situations hoping to motivate team members to push themselves harder. I am not sure that is a good thing. It can create stress which has been proven not to be conducive to creativity. On the other hand, good humoured competition or even rivalry between teams adds a competitive edge with minimal stress. Moreover, friendly rivalry can make things more fun. And fun is almost always conducive to creativity.

6. Train Team Leaders in the Basics of Group Creativity

In order to ensure team leaders extract the maximum creative potential from members, it is important that team leaders understand the basics of group creativity. She should be able to use creative tools herself and know how to motivate her team members to think more creatively. (See the Nine Principles of Creative Leadership for more on this topic). Needless-to-say, I highly recommend team leaders do not focus their training on brainstorming or the creative problem solving (CPS) process, both of which tend to result in lots of PostIt notes and spreadsheets full of unimpressive ideas and little actual implementation. I recommend my own (not surprisingly) Anticonventional thinking (ACT) and other collaborative methods, that work towards building big ideas rather that capturing little ones.

7. Solve Relationship Problems Quickly

If two team members have problems with each other, the team leader or a senior manager (particularly if the team leader is part of the problem) needs to solve the conflict quickly. In-group fighting between two or more members can destroy group dynamics, cause team members to take sides and eat up time that should be devoted to creativity and innovation. If worse comes to worst, move one of the conflictees to another team.

8. Break Down Hierarchies (as much as you can)

Hierarchies can cause problems in teams – particularly in hierarchical or bureaucratic organisations. Team members will always look to their superiors for approval and this tends to result in generating ideas to please superiors rather than generating ideas that are truly creative. There are two alternatives. You can either build teams of people who are at similar levels within the hierarchy, or you can establish basic team rules to discourage playing to the hierarchy. Better still, do both!

9. Alternative Meeting Spaces

The least creative space in the world is the office desk. The second least creative space is a typical business conference room. They are useful for working, but somehow suck the creativity out of people. So, find alternative meeting spaces for teams to meet. Meet up in a coffee shop, go for a walk, find a picnic table, rent a cool space in a co-working space, go to the beach. Meeting in such places from time to time encourages more open minded thinking that results in new ideas.

In addition, companies should provide more creative meeting spaces. Many already have "innovation rooms" which include beanbag chairs, pillows, toys, a coffee machine, loads of paper, pens and other tools for playful creativity. If your company does not already have such a space, create one.

Also useful are spaces for informal meetings. Many offices will have arm chairs and sofas in niches. Small groups can simply find such spaces and use them for spontaneous idea sharing chats.

10. Give Women Equal Time

It is a well known fact that in meetings, men tend to interrupt women far more than the reverse. When women propose ideas, men will often repeat the ideas and get credit as the idea originators. This is unfair and demotivating to women team members. Team leaders need to be sure that women are allowed to express their ideas without interruption and that they are credited with their ideas. Likewise, encourage members of the team to do the same thing. Apparently, women in the White House (under President Obama) developed a great method to ensure they were heard and credited. Read about it here.

What About You?

What are your experiences in innovative teams? What was the magic that made them work? And how about your experience in uninnovative teams? What killed the creativity? Share your experiences with me, please. I would love to know about them!


A version of this article was first published in the 3 April 2008 issue of Report 103


Need a Little Help with Innovative Teams?

Teams really can make or break innovation in companies like yours. If your teams are not delivering innovative results, your organisation will not be innovative.

I can help you out in several ways, including workshops for individual teams, workshops for team leaders, advice in establishing creative space and acting as an advisor to you and your team(s).

Want to know more? Get in touch!




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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey