This article first appeared in Smart Business – Cleveland, January 24, 2019.
By Bill Nottingham
Not long ago, we interviewed someone for a position at Nottingham Spirk. His resume was impressive, but he blamed a former employer’s failed projects on its refusal to heed his advice. Presumably, he thought this made him sound competent, perhaps even visionary, but it set off alarms. Assigning blame is the flip side of taking credit, and both are incompatible with what we’ve learned about teamwork and its vital role in driving innovation.
We find that small, multidisciplinary project teams are more efficient and more adept at finding creative solutions than traditional horizontal handoffs between departments. But they require a different mindset. Trust is the single most essential element. All members must feel confident that they will be heard. As Isaac Asimov once wrote about brainstorming sessions, “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation and a general sense of permissiveness. … All people at a session [must] be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.”
Ideally, you’re vetting people for these traits in the hiring stage. We always listen carefully for excessive use of “I” and “me.” Then, leaders need to demonstrate that they trust their teams. When people are worried that mistakes will hurt their careers, they take fewer chances.
Our teams include representatives from all relevant departments, from start to finish. The commercialization folks are involved from the beginning, even though their role is limited until we near the manufacturing stage. And our market researchers stay involved until the end. This helps the team anticipate problems, but also gives everyone a sense of ownership and investment in each other’s success.
As Isaac Asimov once wrote about brainstorming sessions, “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation and a general sense of permissiveness.… All people at a session [must] be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.”
Multidisciplinary project teams also maximize cognitive diversity — differences in perspective or information processing styles — and which research has linked to effectiveness in problem-solving. For example, designers and engineers tend to think differently not just because of their training, but because of longstanding personal traits that led them to those careers in the first place. They work best together when neither one is dominant.
“If you look for it, cognitive diversity is all around — but people like to fit in, so they are cautious about sticking their necks out,” according to a 2017 Harvard Business Review article. “When we have a strong, homogenous culture (e.g., an engineering culture, an operational culture or a relational culture), we stifle the natural cognitive diversity in groups through the pressure to conform. We may not even be aware that it is happening.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, team members also need time to work alone. As NYU professor Melissa Schilling wrote in Inc., much of the conventional wisdom about brainstorming sessions has been disproven.
“Individuals who are more outspoken or who have forceful personalities can dominate the conversation and … herd a team onto a particular trajectory without even intending to do so,” she wrote. “A little isolation and solitude can give other individuals a better chance to develop their breakthrough ideas.”
With balance and direction, anything is possible. How do you leverage teams in your business?
Bill Nottingham is vice president at Nottingham Spirk.
Contact Nottingham Spirk to discuss how your organization can take innovation to the next level.