the lectern banner

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

How conformists can spark creativity

Steve Kelman

In a number of columns I've written over the years, I have criticized the idea held by many non-academics that scholarly research in general — and research on organizations and management in particular — merely establishes the obvious.

I came across a paper recently in the Academy of Management Journal — the leading outlet for scholarly empirical research on organizational behavior — that would certainly fit into the category of research that does not establish the obvious.

The finding? A team's ability to innovate is enhanced by having some team members who are conformists. The paper, titled "The Effect of Conformists and Attentive-to-Detail Members on Team Innovation: Reconciling the Innovation Paradox," was written by Ella Miron-Spektor, an organizational psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and two Israeli colleagues. It examines work teams at a large Israeli defense company — so it's not lab research using college undergrads — that are charged with developing advanced technologies in areas such as microelectronics and communications.

The authors asked members of different teams about each member's cognitive style. In particular, the researchers asked questions to tap members' creative and conformist orientations. For creativity, people were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "I have a lot of creative ideas" and "I prefer tasks that enable me to think creatively." To measure what the authors call conformity, they asked questions such as "I try not to oppose team members" and "I adapt myself to the system."

The authors also asked group supervisors (using an established research method) to divide 100 points among four levels of innovation that their teams had attained on their projects as a whole, ranging from "duplicating existing technologies" (the lowest) to "developing breakthrough technologies based on fundamentally new concepts or principles" (the highest). Using that scale, each team received a "radical innovation" score.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the higher the percentage of creatives on a team, the higher the team's supervisor-designated radical innovation score. However, having a higher proportion of conformists in a group also promoted radical innovation. The effect was non-linear: Moving from a below-average percentage of conformists on a team (compared with all the teams in the sample) to an average proportion dramatically increased a team's radical innovation score. But moving from an average proportion to a significantly above-average one produced only a small further increase in radical innovation.


Read the full Executive Handbook package

Main page
How to spot a turkey farm
How to make the most of a mentor
How to share a service
How to join the Senior Executive Service
How to assess your team
How to influence policy
How to stay out of the weeds
How to learn from success
How to foster better performance

The study found evidence for two ways conformists help teams become more innovative. The more conformists on a team, the higher the team's perception of its own potency (i.e., its ability to accomplish its tasks), and team potency was associated with the ability to be innovative. And the more conformists on a team, the better the team did at implementing its creative ideas.

A general lesson in all this — and one that is associated with the work of recently deceased team management scholar Richard Hackman — is that managers tend to pay too much attention to team processes and not enough attention to setting up a team for success before it begins work, including choosing the right mix of skills and temperaments for team membership.

And specifically in this situation, it is intuitive to think that if you want a creative team, the main thing you need to do is get a lot of creative people on it. This fascinating research suggests that to keep the ship moving forward, the tempestuous seas of creativity should be tempered by the ballast of conformity.

Posted on Feb 08, 2013 at 12:09 PM


The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Tue, Feb 12, 2013

I like this research and agreed with the research findings.

Fri, Feb 8, 2013

I agree- I'll try to adapt myself to this research . . .

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above