What Sparks Team Creativity?

TWO STUDIES OFFER insights into how companies can boost the creativity and overall performance of their teams.
What Sparks Team Creativity?

One study challenges the conventional wisdom that teams often do better with one person at the helm. In fact, teams may be more effective if leadership shifts from person to person over the course of a project, following a heterarchical rather than hierarchical pattern. That’s the finding of Federico Aime, associate professor of management at Oklahoma State University’s Spears School of Business in Stillwater; Stephen Humphrey, professor of management at Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business in State College; D. Scott Derue, professor of management at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor; and Jeffrey B. Paul, assistant professor of management at the University of Tulsa’s Collins College of Business in Oklahoma.

In an experiment, 131 business students were divided into 45 teams, each with two to three study participants and two research assistants pretending to be participants. Teams were asked to prepare marketing plans, design websites, and prepare presentations related to the promotion of a new cell phone to college students. A panel of judges would give $500 to the team with the most creative approach.

Before starting the project, participants filled out questionnaires that supposedly rated their leadership skills on specific tasks, with the results posted to the entire group. The results, however, were arbitrary. The researchers chose, at random, two participants to rate highest in two tasks, while a research assistant was rated highest in a third. Once the project began, research assistants were instructed not to contribute ideas to their teams, but to monitor how power shifted from one team member to another when it came to assigning tasks or setting deadlines. Later, team members were asked to rate how legitimate they deemed each power shift to be on a scale of 1 to 7.

The panel found that the most creative work came from those teams that shifted power most often and were most likely to view those shifts as legitimate. This occurred even though participants had false beliefs about the extent of their teammates’ expertise. The researchers speculate that participants’ willingness to power shift might have been driven by “chemistry” among the team members.

The researchers acknowledge that achieving that kind of chemistry is more art than science. Still, they suggest that to encourage power shifting and boost team creativity, managers could strive to include several individuals with leadership potential when putting teams together. They also could choose people with diverse skill sets, ensure all team members are aware of those skill sets, and not be afraid to change out team members when new skills better suit the task at hand. “The riddle of heterarchy: power transitions in cross-functional teams” appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

Another recent study looks at how standing up during meetings affects creativity. New research from two organizational behavior professors at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, finds that standing during meetings doesn’t just boost creativity. It also can make people less territorial over their own ideas.

In an experiment, Andrew Knight and Markus Baer asked participants to work in teams for 30 minutes to develop a university recruitment video. Some teams worked in a room equipped with chairs around a table; others, in a room with no chairs at all. Research assistants rated the teamwork dynamic and the quality of the videos. Participants rated how protective their team members were of their own ideas. Participants also wore sensors around their wrists to measure their sweat responses, which indicated their levels of excitement during the process.

The researchers found that teams that stood exhibited greater physiological arousal, were less territorial, and were more likely to share ideas than those who were seated. These teams also produced higher quality videos than those who worked while seated.

While organizations can completely redesign their spaces to encourage more activity during meetings, Knight says that even small tweaks can make a big difference in how well people work. He suggests changes such as adding whiteboards to or removing chairs from a conference space; installing adjustable height desks that allow standing while working; and holding meetings while walking.

“Get up, stand up: the effects of a non-sedentary workspace on information elaboration and group performance” was published in the June issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.