Too much harmony in a team can kill creativity
How to create the right level of friction in your workplace to ensure maximum creativity
William Wrigley Jr, the American chewing gum tycoon, once noted that business is built by men who disagree, and that “When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary”. Indeed, not just in business but also in politics, sports and the arts, there is no shortage of real-world examples of successful partnerships that were fuelled as much by the alignment of ideas as by creative tension or discord.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were a total mismatch when it came to style and personality, but their ability to combine their strengths—Jobs the visionary salesman, Wozniak the genius inventor—was key to Apple’s DNA. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won three consecutive NBA titles together, but they also had a bitter and tense relationship that they could not hide from the public. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy played a big role in stabilizing Europe after the 2008 financial crisis, but they made an odd couple in public and mocked each other in private.
Consistent with these famous case studies, scientific research shows that creativity and innovation can be enhanced by reducing team harmony. For instance, a recent study in ScienceDirect of 100 product development teams found that two common disruptors of team harmony, namely diversity and task uncertainty, were positively associated with creative performance. Likewise, a review of theoretical and quantitative studies in Sage Publications showed that teams that are able to engage in productive task conflict—expressing disagreements, negotiating between different views, and working under a certain amount of tension—tend to be more innovative.
Conversely, when teams and organizations enjoy too much harmony, they will gravitate towards inaction and complacency, which, as Clayton Christensen noted 20 years ago in The Innovator’s Dilemma , will breed decline and extinction. From Kodak to BlackBerry to Blockbuster, business schools are spoilt for choice when it comes to examples of dominant market players that were jettisoned from the top by their complacency. Being happy with the status quo is a sure way to escape creativity. Any significant innovation in the history of civilization was the product of dissatisfied minds: people who were unhappy with the current order of things and sought to disrupt the existing harmony.
The lesson for leaders is obvious: Fight harmony, inject some tension into your teams and organizations, and embrace a moderate amount of conflict. Here are three suggestions for making this happen.
Set bold but achievable goals
Performance is a function of motivation, and motivation can be increased by setting bold goals, which are at the edge of the team’s capability. Creating tension between the team’s skills and those required to accomplish the task will have motivating effects, so long as the task is still achievable. This is aligned with the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which states that performance is best when tasks are moderately difficult. People are not motivated by tasks that are either too easy or unachievable.
Sustain positive stress
Although not all hard tasks are worth doing, most things worth doing are hard, which is why we aspire to them. How we interpret our circumstances is key to turning stress into eustress, generating hope and purpose. A recent research review suggested that managers can help this process by framing challenges as opportunities, while keeping their focus on the distance that still needs to be travelled.
Elicit conflict and adversity
Good managers are able to get people to speak honestly and use disagreements to reach more considered decisions. Often, an explicit process can help. Performing a project pre-mortem to identify all the things that could go wrong before it even begins can surface hard truths while they can still be addressed.
Although these recommendations will likely reduce the level of harmony in teams, it is essential that teams are equipped for coping with conflict and discord if we want to see improvements in creative performance. Here are three suggestions for enabling this:
■ Make sure that the team has the right personality characteristics: While one size does not fit all, teams with higher aggregate levels of conscientiousness and agreeableness will be better equipped to manage diversity and conflict. Members will be more likely to hold themselves accountable to agreements, will try to smooth over relationship conflicts, and will ensure that the task focus is not derailed by personal dramas.
■ Increase psychological safety: Psychological safety creates an atmosphere of participation and trust that allows members to actively engage in risky social behaviours such as disagreements and criticisms, as well as non-defensive and open responses to those risky behaviours.
■ Give the team a chance to settle: Sometimes there is no substitute for the passage of time. Teams that develop sufficient familiarity create both emotional connections and precedents that allow them to productively work through tensions. For example, a Nasa study found that teams with a shared working history made half as many errors as newly formed teams. And in the absence of a shared history, team members with similar values are more likely to put up with tension and turn task conflict into a positive outcome.
This article was first published on www.hbrascend.org. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.
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