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


Rising Stars

Meet 21 early-career leaders who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock imag (by Benjamin Haas): cyber coded team.

    What keeps govtech leaders up at night?

    A joint survey by Grant Thornton and PSC found that IT stakeholders in government fear their own employees and outdated systems the most when it comes to cybersecurity.

  • SEC Chairman Jay Clayton

    SEC owns up to 2016 breach

    A key database of financial information was breached in 2016, possibly in support of insider trading, said the Securities and Exchange Commission.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DOD looks to get aggressive about cloud adoption

    Defense leaders and Congress are looking to encourage more aggressive cloud policies and prod reluctant agencies to embrace experimentation and risk-taking.

  • Shutterstock / Pictofigo

    The next big thing in IT procurement

    Steve Kelman talks to the agencies that have embraced tech demos in their acquisition efforts -- and urges others in government to give it a try.

  • broken lock

    DHS bans Kaspersky from federal systems

    The Department of Homeland Security banned the Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab’s products from federal agencies in a new binding operational directive.

  • man planning layoffs

    USDA looks to cut CIOs as part of reorg

    The Department of Agriculture is looking to cut down on the number of agency CIOs in the name of efficiency and better communication across mission areas.

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

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group