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Tips on how to make teams creative from VCU Business’ fall scholar-in-residence

Oct. 16, 2018 - Leila Ugincius

Creativity is at the center of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business’ EPIC strategic plan. Along with the annual artists-in-residence and creativity czars, guest lecturers, such as fall scholar-in-residence Roni Reiter-Palmon, Ph.D., who teaches creativity and innovation at the University of Nebraska Omaha, bring a different perspective on creativity.

“As a creativity researcher, I will tell you that not every problem needs a creative solution,” Reiter-Palmon said during her lecture “Team Creativity: The Good, the Bad and How to Make it Happen.” “Routine solutions, when they work that's great, but we also need to be able to come up with creative solutions when we want them. … Particularly for today's organizations, what we see is that we have complex problems.”

More simply, she said, today’s children need creativity to be productive citizens in the future. Often, that requires teamwork.

“What is fascinating about teams is that we have mixed feelings,” Reiter-Palmon said. “We’ve all been to meetings where things have gone horribly wrong. And we've all been to meetings where we worked in teams where things were so amazing it's one of the best experiences of our lives. So what differentiates them? How do we minimize the bad? How do we make the good happen more frequently?”

Here are some of Reiter-Palmon’s tips about teamwork from “Team Creativity.”

The good

Not all problems need a creative solution

“Creativity is time-consuming. It's effortful, it's risky. There's a time and place. Certain problems do need a creative solution, but not all. So creativity should not be the goal of everything. You really want to think about whether a creative solution is required to this particular problem.”

Task conflict 

“Task conflict is [when someone says], ‘No, I don't think this is what we need to do. I have a better approach.’ Things like that. … Recent thinking is that too much of it is not good, too little is not good. It's kind of that middle ground. You want some conflict because it gets people thinking. It gets them to express opinion and, in the end, that makes the outcome better. But if you have too little conflict, everybody readily agrees that this is a good idea and we don't fully consider alternatives.”

Multiple disciplines or perspectives

“You know, if you've come up with a new product, you need the engineers to develop the product, but you also need the person that does marketing and public relations. You need the supply chain person, the HR person who makes sure that you have the right people in place. It becomes a team effort. So having those multiple perspectives … allows us to incorporate more knowledge, allows us to think about the problem, the complex problem, in a more complex and better way. So we have a better solution.”

Divvying up the workload

“When we have a team, we have the ability to share the workload, both the physical and the mental workload, so we can do more in a shorter amount of time even when we have those coordination costs. And we can capitalize on the strengths of the team members, different personality characteristics. … You have people that have different knowledge that they bring to different networks of people they know that they can bring into the mix.”

The bad

Ineffective communication

“Basically what happens is that people bring different perspectives and points of view and we would like to think that's a great thing, but it also makes it much harder to communicate. When I talk to colleagues across different disciplines, sometimes it takes us three or four months to figure out what each other is saying because we use different terms to describe the same phenomena, or use the same word to describe different phenomena. And it's really confusing.”

Lack of trust

“When we don't know people very well and they're very different from us, we tend to start with a low level of trust. It takes time to build and lead to effective communication.”

Relationship conflict

Unlike task conflict, “relationship conflict is, ‘I don’t like you.’ Relationship conflict is really bad for teams. I have not seen a single study that shows that relationship conflict is good.”

Dominant individuals and loafers

“We've all been in those meetings or group session that you have one person that just talks and talks and talks and takes over. … And then we have social loafing, which is you have that person that sits back and lets everybody else do the work, because nobody will know that I'm not doing anything.”

How to make it happen

Engage socially

“The way we solve problems in teams requires us to engage in social processes. [If] I feel comfortable with the team, I can share information with the team, knowing that if I say something maybe a little out there, nobody's going to jump down on me and be upset with me. I feel safe to disclose information. For creativity to happen, we have to have people feeling comfortable raising ideas that maybe are not completely formed. Raising ideas that might be risky. Raising ideas that maybe make other people uncomfortable.”

Reflect and learn

“Teams that reflect and then learn tend to be more creative than teams that don't. OK, so we did something. We reflect on it. We learn what we did well, we learn from our mistakes. We don't beat up people about mistakes. We learned from them and then we implemented that learning so for the next time we do it better. Those teams tend to be more creative.”

Define the problem

“Most problems in businesses are ill-defined. That means that the problems can be viewed in multiple ways. There are multiple solutions. They have multiple causes. We can think about those problems and in different ways.”

Take time

“How can we get people to generate a lot of ideas? The problem is that a lot of ideas does not necessarily translate to good ideas. Potentially, the really good one gets lost in the sheer volume of all of those ideas. When we have multiple ideas, what we find is that the initial ideas tend to be more routine. So it takes time. It's like we need to clear a memory of those routine ideas and then we could come up with more creative ideas.” 

Suspend judgment

“Don't laugh at ideas. Don't tell people these ideas are silly or stupid or incorrect because if you do that, people stop sharing. By suspending judgment, we increase the likelihood of sharing. And what happens is that even though an idea might be silly or stupid or irrelevant, it allows people to come up with additional ideas.”

Share information

“If we don't communicate and we don't share information and we don't coordinate, none of this happens in the team. It stays at the individual level. And if we don't manage conflict, people will not communicate. So communication [and] coordination require trust and psychological safety. Basically we have to have the social processes in place, we have to have that happening or people will not engage in the cognitive work that is required, or at least they won't engage at the team level.”