A study out of INSEAD purports to show how managers of innovation teams can better position their employees for success. While much of the research into creative teams suggests that individually familiarity is important for productivity, according to the researchers, that’s only part of the equation

The authors of the paper, Manuel Sosa, Associate Professor of Technology and Operations Management at INSEAD, and Franck Marle, Associate Professor of Project Management, Laboratoire Génie Industriel, Ecole Centrale Paris write that managers should look at the quality of creative past interactions between team members. Simply knowing one another is not enough to produce good creative work – team members should have a track record of positive past creative interactions as well.

They write, “Creativity is strongly influenced by the way individuals are organized. One of the most difficult and important challenges when managing innovation is to identify the individuals within an organization who must work closely with each other to maximize the generation of creative ideas.”

By ensuring that individuals on a creative team are well suited to work with one another, managers can better hope to achieve a more productive creative teaCreative Team Familiarity

Sosa and Marl believe that organizations must take extra care when putting together creative teams – rather than creating or following through on strategic plans, creative teams work through a unique process “characterized by understanding and empathizing with target users, generating many and diverse potential solutions, and prototyping and testing preliminary solutions into a final outcome.”

Being familiar with one another may help these teams be more cooperative, they continue, but over the long term, it can create a type of groupthink that can stifle creativity. That’s why a more precise measure of famliarity is needed. They continue, “This paper addresses this limitation by introducing the notion of creative team familiarity: the degree to which team members have triggered the generation of creative ideas in one another during task-related interactions before joining the team.”

The authors present the notion of “creative team familiarity” – a qualitative measure that describes how well people have worked together in the past, not simply that they have worked together in the past.

They explain:

“We argue that it is the positive creativity-related experience associated with such prior interactions that makes team familiarity an important determinant of a supportive team atmosphere that is conducive to divergent thinking and experimentation… When some team members have experienced positive creative interactions prior to joining the team, such familiar team members are likely to act as creative catalysts again. In that sense, creative team familiarity is expected to foster team trust and motivation to generate and experiment with potentially creative ideas.”

By measuring communication patterns associated with creative team familiarity, managers can put together better teams.

Steps to Designing Productive Creative Teams

They set out to find if they could measure empirically the communicative interactions between creative team members, and to find out whether those measurements had any bearing on the success of creative teams. They studied teams of executive MBA students who were grouped by instructors to develop a product. Based on this exercise they developed – and tested their method – at a publicly traded German company.

First, managers should examine the formal and informal structure of their organization – how are people assigned to groups and who talks to whom outside of formal groups on task-related issues? Next, managers should measure interactions between people. “To do so, we suggest measuring, for each task-related interaction identified in step 1, the extent to which the recipient of such dyads has been able to generate potentially creative ideas based on his or her interactions with the source of such a dyad,” they write.

Third, they should identify candidates for creative teams based on these measurements. “This third step relies on the existence of the appropriate clustering algorithm that takes the creative interaction matrix and the needs of the NPD manager as core inputs and produces suggestions of possible creative teams with high levels of creative team familiarity,” they note.

Finally, they should examine the formal and informal links people have to other individuals not within the specific team – which can be useful for future team development.

Sosa and Marl believe their methodology will help create better creative teams. They explain:

“Our approach avoids forming teams based solely on traditional criteria: the diversity of the potential members’ backgrounds, how well members get along, and how long team members have been working together… Instead, we suggest considering the quality of the communication patterns of individuals in the organization as an important input to the process of assembling creative teams.”

Rather than just putting together people and expecting creativity to just happen, they have developed an empirically tested rubric for encouraging success based on communication success.