By Steve Kelman

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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.

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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


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