What Makes a Team Innovative?
    What Makes a Team Innovative?

    In today’s global and fast-paced market, innovation is no longer what it takes to get ahead; innovation is necessary to keep you from getting left behind. Naturally, this means that companies want to encourage innovation, and many are turning to creating “innovative teams.” However, innovation takes more than putting a group of creative people in the same room. Creativity alone isn’t enough for innovation. Innovation actually has two stages: idea generation (i.e. creativity), and implementation. It is very important to always keep that second stage in mind because no matter how many good ideas people have, you will never benefit if those ideas are not actually implemented. Things get even more complicated when you are talking about an innovative team. A team is more than a collection of individuals. Everyone can probably think of a time when you could have finished something faster working alone and you didn’t actually need a team. Team members have the tricky task of navigating through interactions with each other, all while staying within general constraints imposed by an organization. Luckily, research has found several processes that lead to both the generation and implementation of creative ideas in teams.

    1. Vision

    Have you ever been in a team or any job where you knew what your day-to-day tasks were, but had no idea why you were doing them? This is all too common, and exemplifies a lack of sharing vision, or the higher goals of the organization. Not to be confused with specific team goals, vision is the collection of broad objectives for the organization. People can list creative ideas all day long, but they are unlikely to ever be implemented if they don’t align with the goals of the organization. If a team working for Apple is generating ideas for how to keep a pizza fresh, then unless Apple has secretly changed its business plan, that creative effort will never see fruition.

    2. Support for innovation

    A general organizational environment that encourages innovation seems like it should be a given if an organization expects teams to innovate. However, research has consistently shown that support is a significant predictor of successful team innovation, so it seems like some organizations just don’t get it. Implementing a new idea is risky. It might not work. Teams (and individuals) need to know that they won’t be fired if their idea happens to not work out. Otherwise, people aren’t going to be willing to offer new ideas. Organizations need to be willing to be flexible and tolerant for teams to feel comfortable investing in truly revolutionary ideas instead of marginal changes.

    3. Task orientation

    A team exhibits task orientation when members share a concern to maintain excellent quality team performance. Sure, everyone wants their team to do well, but task orientation goes beyond that. Teams high on task orientation don’t just want members to excel, they make sure that everyone on the team is performing at a superior level. Teammates will review each other’s work and provide constructive feedback regarding how it can be improved. This might seem like common sense, but it can be very uncomfortable to point out flaws in someone else’s work. This can lead to conflict, but ultimately the team will be more innovative if each team member is both receptive to feedback and comfortable offering suggestions for improvement.

    4. Cohesion

    Team cohesion is how much members are committed to the group. Said another way, cohesion is the degree to which team members wish to maintain their membership in the group. It is hard to imagine really engaging with a group of people to implement creative, but risky ideas if you have one foot out the door. There are three types of cohesion: interpersonal cohesion, task cohesion, and group pride. Interpersonal cohesion is how much teams members like other people in the team, and task cohesion is how committed team members are to work tasks or goals. Group pride is the degree of importance that members associate with being a member of the team. All three types of cohesion are important because they encourage members to want to stay in the team.

    5. Communication

    Clear and open communication is helpful for team functioning in general, but fundamental to innovation. Innovative teams excel in both internal (within the team) and external (outside the team) communication. During the idea generation phase, internal communication is what allows team members to share information. Sharing information and talking through ideas allows a team to integrate a variety of perspectives and develop a better idea. External communication can also be beneficial for idea generation because talking with people with an outside perspective can spark new ideas. In the implementation phase, communication remains important. Providing feedback continuously through the implementation process will ensure that the idea is implemented in the way in which it was envisioned.

    Do these processes describe your team?

    If your team doesn’t have vision, support for innovation, task orientation, cohesion, and open communication, then your team might not be an “innovative team.” The processes can be influenced by both the larger organizational culture, and the interaction among team members. For example, vision should be communicated by the organization generally, but the way a team leader communicates the organization’s vision is the only way that team will actually experience it. Innovation is necessary for many companies to stay relevant, so companies need to learn to provide an environment conducive to innovation and assemble teams that can engage in these five processes.