Innovation is a team sport. Although creativity is a characteristic that is often used to describe individuals, the idea of the lone genius is a myth. Even famous inventors such as Thomas Edison where in reality representing the “work of many men.” Francis Jehl, a longtime assistant of Thomas Edison , used this phrase to describe the group of engineers who worked with Edison at his Menlo Park lab.
On the journey from ideation to a successful product launch, innovation necessitates the interaction of multiple actors, across many departments, with different expertise and knowledge. In writing about the illustrious history of Bell Labs, James Gertner notes that “…almost by definition, a single person or even a single group, could not alone create an innovation. The task [is] too variegated and involved.”
Multidisciplinary collaboration is the stew in which creativity and innovation thrive. Such collaboration creates insights by exposing people to ideas from other disciplines besides their own area of specialization. This creates tremendous opportunities for serendipity. However, even in cross-functional teams, work is ultimately performed by individuals. Each person has to play their part. So how can we get the combined outputs of our teams to be more creative?
Researchers Andrew B. Hargadon and Beth Bechky have studied how “collections of creatives become creative collectives.” In one study, they examined the ways of working in two management consulting firms (Accenture and McKinsey); and two product design consulting firms (Ideo and Design Continuum). What they learned about collective creativity provides interesting insights into how teams can increase their creativity. They found four interrelated activities that can trigger moments of collective creativity.
1. Help Seeking
This happens when an individual employee recognizes that they have a problem they cannot solve on their own and they reach out to get help from others. Companies have a tendency to reward the lone wolf who solves problems as an individual. In contrast, creative teams have an array of formal and informal ways to seek help from each other. Help-seeking behaviors create opportunities for the kinds of social interactions that can trigger serendipitous insights.
2. Help Giving
This is the willingness of colleagues to devote their time and attention to helping co-workers solve their problems. This works best when there is an authentic willingness to help others with positive engagement. Such collaboration often means getting involved in projects that fall outside of people’s job descriptions. In most organizations, such help giving requires dealing with bureaucracy in order to get permission to work with others. In creative organizations, teams are provided with spaces and structures that support help seeking and help giving in spontaneous and informal ways.
3. Reflective Reframing
Help seeking and help giving produce creative outcomes when the people involved mindfully pay attention to each others inputs and use these to refine and improve their original ideas. Rather than mindlessly offering help, positive engagement can include helping colleagues reframe the problem from alternative perspectives. Furthermore, those receiving help have to be willing to use the inputs they are getting to modify their original thinking. There is no point in seeking help if you do not use what you are learning to rethink and revise your original ideas. If help seeking and help giving are the two sides of the innovation coin, then reflective reframing is the process via which these two sides combine to create value.
The role for leadership within a company is to reinforce the shared values and beliefs that reward and promote collaborative problem solving. For example, help seeking needs an environment in which it is not viewed as weakness or incompetence. Heroically trying to solve problems as an individual should not be rewarded. Instead, help giving must be recognized and celebrated. Bureaucratic barriers to collaboration must be removed. For innovation projects companies must create and support multidisciplinary teams.
For creativity and innovation to flourish, companies must create environments in which a collection of different types of people work together to become a collective force. Having people from different disciplines working together allows different world views to be surfaced and shared. If this is combine with help-seeking, help giving and reflective reframing, companies will have created a great environment for fostering creativity.