When Teams Don't Make Sense

Why is it that we always reach for the "team solution" for all problems?  In many, if not most situations, teams are often the best way to approach the challenging tasks in the world of business – where complexity, multiple disciplines, regulation, and speed are often requirements.

However, there are some instances where teams do not make sense – and that is when the challenge involves fundamental innovation.  We mean innovation with a capital “I” where we are looking for breakthrough ideas that can be implemented in the real world.  Not a possibility… and not an incremental improvement.  You might say – how can this be true?  Isn’t brainstorming one of the best ways to solve problems?  Yes, sometimes, and yes, sometimes for simple challenges.  But many times, and more often than not, team based innovation fails to deliver.

Personally, I have confronted this many times in my experience as a manager and as a consultant.  I’m sometimes frustrated when my work mates want to schedule a meeting to brainstorm on a topic.  In a polite way, I try to rebuff the organizer, saying that I need time to prepare and think – time to define the problem, dig into it a little, roll it around in my own mind and reflect on what I’ve done in the past to solve similar problems.  This often helps me bring much stronger ideas to the table and participate in a more creative and constructive manner.

Professors of Wharton and INSEAD have performed a study on this topic that was summarized in the newsletter Knowledge@Wharton.  One of the top ten articles from this weekly publication, Knowledge @ Wharton, for 2010 was a piece by Terwiesch, Ulrich & Girota called “How Group Dynamics May Be Killing Innovation”, which was published in May of 2010, and republished December 21, 2010.  The piece can be found at http://t.co/gqvvx1s.

There are a couple of reasons for this thesis (which was demonstrated by a research project with forty-four University of Pennsylvania students).  The first is that in a group setting, self-censorship is common to prevent one from looking foolish in front of their boss or peers.  Second, individuals want to ‘build-up’ the ideas of others, adding little value to the thought process again, because they don’t want to stand out.  However, in innovation, variance is your friend.  And the group tends to kill off the really outside ideas.

What is recommended is a hybrid process where there is a first period of individual ideation and creativity.  After the participants have some initial concepts developed, the group is brought together and the ideas are then discussed among the group.  Not only were there more ideas generated in the hybrid process (a factor of three), but the quality of the best ideas were much better!  And in innovation, it is the very best ideas that matter.