Inventive thinking in a team setting is fueled by a blend of talents, skills, and traits that rarely all exist in a single person—such as an ability to see problems through fresh eyes, a knack for understanding a frustrated customer’s complaints, or a ﬂair for turning a creative idea into a proﬁtable innovation. This kind of intellectual diversity is more likely to be present when individuals on the team come from different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise. A choir can’t perform well if it’s made up of all sopranos; similarly, on an innovative team, you won’t achieve good results with people whose strengths and styles are all the same.
The most productive creative teams often exhibit characteristics that seem contradictory. For example, a group needs both expertise in relevant subjects and fresh eyes that can see beyond the established ways of doing things. Its members need the freedom to decide how to achieve goals while also having the discipline to work in alignment with the organization’s strategy. An innovative team needs to be both playful and professional, and it needs to be able to plan out a project carefully while also accepting that projects don’t always go as planned—and being willing to improvise when unexpected events arise.
To build a team that can navigate effectively among these different dynamics, you need to shape your group so that each individual brings a unique combination of knowledge and skills. You may need people with relevant experience within a speciﬁc industry, the ability to perform a particular technical skill, or a talent for writing or presentation. You’ll also want team members who excel in interpersonal dynamics such as building consensus, giving feedback, communicating in groups, and motivating others.
In addition to recruiting team members with a mix of skills and experience, you’ll want to include individuals with a blend of different preferred thinking styles, or unconscious ways of looking at and interacting with the world. There are many different ways to describe how people think. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for example, divides thinking preferences into four categories:
- Extroverted or introverted. Extroverts look to other people as their primary means of processing information. They quickly share ideas or problems with others for feedback. Introverts tend to process information internally before presenting their results to others.
- Sensing or intuitive. Sensing people prefer using facts and hard data to help them make decisions. Intuitive people tend to be more comfortable with “big picture” ideas and concepts.
- Thinking or feeling. Thinking people use logic and order to make their decisions. Feeling people are more attuned to emotional cues; their decisions are guided by the values or relationships involved.
- Judging or perceiving. People who judge prefer having closure, with all loose ends tied up, when managing tasks and making decisions. Those who perceive are more comfortable with openness and ambiguity. They often want to gather more data before making a ﬁnal decision.
Everyone exhibits all eight of these qualities in varying degrees, though we do have innate preferences. For example, a feeling person is not incapable of logical thought, nor is intuition absent in a sensing person. But a feeling person is more likely to respond emotionally to a problem before applying a logical lens, and a sensing person may prefer to make a decision based on hard data rather than on a theory. Preferences can also change in different contexts. You may have a tendency toward perception when visiting your child’s classroom but employ judgment when at jury duty.
No one style is better than another, and each carries its own set of beneﬁts to a collaborative discussion. The ideas and solutions that an intellectually diverse team generates will be richer and more valuable due to the wide variety of perspectives that inform them. Diversity of thought and perspective can protect your team from groupthink and can sparkcreative abrasion, a process in which potential solutions are generated, explored, and altered through debate and discourse.
Assess your team
Now that you understand what an innovative team looks like, think about your own group. If you’ve inherited an existing team or are newly embarking on the creative process with a group you already manage, take this opportunity to get to know each individual, assessing her skills and other elements of intellectual diversity.
The best way to get to know your team and assess its range of skills and experience is through conversation. It can be helpful to do this as a group, so everyone can learn what each team member brings to the table. Ask each person a few directed questions:
- 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?
You may already know the answers to some of these questions, based on your prior experience with these individuals. But many of us have interests and experiences unrelated to our jobs. Tapping into these areas at work can kindle passion and introduce ingenuity. 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.
Also ask about prior team experiences, which will allow you and the rest of the team to learn about people’s preferred work styles and different ways of thinking. For example:
- What was your best team experience? Why? What did team members or the leader do to make it a good experience?
- What was your worst team experience? Why? What behaviors made you frustrated or uncomfortable?
- What do you like most about working on a team, and what do you struggle with?
- How do you define a good teammate, team leader, and meeting?
- What do you need from a team to do your best work?
You may not be able to meet every request or preference discussed, but understanding team members’ strengths and proclivities will help you bring out the group’s inventiveness as you progress through the creative process.
This post is adapted from the Harvard Business Review Press book Innovative Teams (20-Minute Manager Series).
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