- To Get More Creative, Get Your Feet Wet
- Reflection Plus Risk: A Recipe for Innovation
- Project Management and Innovation, Past and Future
“First, Get Your Feet Wet.” That’s what a team of researchers recommend for those who want their teams to be more innovative. It’s also the name of the journal article in which they report on three studies about how different kinds of training affected team creativity. It turns out teams that dove in and tried something new, rather than learning about the activity or unrelated group work from other teams, consistently produced more creative work. The article was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Teams of college students were asked to create as many different kinds of origami (paper-folding) sculptures as possible. Those who created the most original designs won $20. The studies looked at how a number of variables correlated to the results. The research team was lead by Francesca Gino, then at the Univ. of North Carolina and later associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.
In the first study one set of teams got a chance to practice by folding cows and milk buckets. Another set watched a video of a team doing origami. The third set watched a movie clip of a jury in deliberation–that is, an unrelated activity. Each team had a chance to discuss how they did or how the team they watched did. Then each team was given “20 sheets of colored origami paper, a roll of Scotch tape, a ruler, a set of eight colored markers, scissors, and glue.” Having gone through an origami phase as a kid, I wish I had been in this study!
Judges who did not know what the study was about, or which team had done what kind of training, rated the results. The measures covered the variety and quality of the sculptures and how different the sculptures were from each other—in other words, how much the team simply rehashed earlier designs. The teams that had done hands-on origami practice earned the highest ratings in every category, while the teams that watched the origami videos did second-best.
The second study looked at the value of “transactive memory,” a scientific term meaning skills or systems for “learning, remembering and communicating team knowledge,” as the studies’ journal report says. To illustrate, here are three of the 15 items team members rated to measure transactive memory:
- “Different team members were responsible for expertise in different areas.”
- “I trusted that other members’ knowledge about the task was credible.”
- “Our team worked together in a well-coordinated fashion.”
Previous studies have found that teams with methods for sharing knowledge about team member expertise outperform those that don’t. But the article says this study appeared to the first test of transactive memory’s effect on creativity. Gino and her team scrambled things up for this second study. They dropped the jury clip, and this time some subjects trained and worked with the same people, while others trained with one group and did the work with another group of people (who had done the same kind of training). Again, the teams of people who had done practice runs were more creative. Although the overall level of creativity was no better if the people had trained together, the variety was better if they had, and measures showed they had higher transactive memory. Further number-crunching by the researchers found that transactive memory explained why teams with direct experience did better.
The scientists were surprised that working with the same group did not have more of an impact. Unlike previous studies, the authors note, in this one the team was creating new products, not trying to get better at producing the same product. So having a good method to share information might not be as important in that situation, especially since creativity is known to be enhanced by bringing in new perspectives.
Their third study differed from Study 2 mostly in that a second round of paper-folding occurred after the training was done. Again some teams were changed after the training, but all stayed the same between the two rounds of judged folding. Yet again, having an initial practice run led to better performance later, compared to watching a video. The effect persisted into the second round.
Gino’s group summarizes, “Our study provides evidence on the limitations of learning from (the) experience of others for the purpose of creativity. We showed that direct experience leads to more creativity than indirect experience and the effects seem to persist over time.” And remember, watching the jury do something unrelated to the task did not help at all.
The journal article added an intriguing warning related to the practice of many U.S. companies of off-shoring work. “Our results suggest that offshoring R&D practices may have hidden costs,” the article says. “The loss of direct experience may impair a unit’s creativity. The benefits of cost reduction may indeed be outweighed by a loss in the ability to be creative.”
The studies used the kind of activity some “teambuilders” out there are probably selling to improve creativity. But I think it important to note that the activity was exactly the skill the teams were trying to do well. Origami was used to improve origami results, not to improve, for example, mechanical engineering problem-solving skills.
For me, the poor results of the videos and training with nongroup members adds to the evidence against the use of games and simulations to enhance team performance. We are bad at applying abstract skills learned in one setting to another more concrete environment. That’s why even ardent supporters of teambuilding experiences have been unable to prove those experiences create lasting change. The best way to improve a skill is hands-on training on that exact skill.
To get more creative ideas during group decision-making, try better ways of group decision-making. Use methods that stimulate and channel the creative juices in a systematic way. One I have used to great effect personally and with teams is my Criteria Method. First have the team list the features or benefits they want from the solution. Then brainstorm possible solutions and compare them on each criterion to choose a winner. Focusing on the outcome you want and comparing solutions head-to-head increase the likelihood of getting that outcome from the final choice.
Source: Gino, F., L. Argote, E. Miron-Spektore, and G. Todorova (2010), “First, get your feet wet: The effects of learning from direct and indirect experience on team creativity,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 111:102.
By working to keep random thoughts and urges from controlling us, we can focus our energy towards the results we want in our lives. “The price of this freedom… is long training and discipline,” Zen Master Philip Kapleau wrote.
Despite this, many business teams resist formal procedures or project management, especially teams dependent on creativity. Discipline and innovation are incompatible, they seem to think. But teams that careen from idea to idea believing this is the way to creative solutions are shooting themselves in the bottom line. They are like a squirrel confused by an approaching car, changing directions again and again to escape it. Besides wasting a lot of energy, the results often are, shall we say, deflating. I am reminded of American inventor Thomas Edison’s famous saying, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” He also said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Both of these quotations from a man with more than 1,000 U.S. patents suggest that reflecting on past success and failure can be as important to innovation as it is in personal growth.
That’s why I chose to open this science-based post with a Zen quote. A key component of Zen is mindfulness, which is simply keeping your mind on what is going on in this moment. Two psychologists (Jacobs and Blustein) wrote in 2008, “The three key elements of mindfulness are awareness, being in the present moment, and acceptance. Awareness is further broken down into three components: stopping, observing, and returning. Stopping refers to halting those automatic behaviors that arise from automatic thoughts.”
A study from last year indicates that stopping, reflecting, and planning next steps based on what was learned leads to greater innovation. Les Tien-Shang Lee of Kun Shan Univ. in Taiwan and Badri Munir Sukoco at Airlangga Univ. in Indonesia surveyed 200 leaders of new product development (NPD) teams based at a science park in Taiwan. To entice people to respond, they offered a chance to win a buffet for four at a five-star restaurant! The questions allowed the researchers to compare the newness and uniqueness of a team’s products to its members’ knowledge base, project management skills, risk-taking, and “team reflexivity.” Lee and Sukoco quote another researcher in saying reflexivity “‘includes behaviors such as questioning, planning… reviewing past events with self-awareness, and coming to terms over time with a new awareness.'”
All of these, I note, are encouraged by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). A well-run project team routinely stops to reflect on what it has learned and uses those lessons to plan future work. In Scrum teams, a “Retrospective Ceremony” happens every one to four weeks.
Lee and Sukoco’s survey revealed a strong correlation between reflexivity and product innovation. However, risk-taking played a role in that relationship. You may think you know what “risk” is, but I found the authors’ discussion of the concept thought-provoking (citations are omitted):
“Risk in the entrepreneurship literature relates to the issues of venturing into the unknown or committing large resources for unknown results. In the context of NPD, risk is associated with the changing of beliefs and routines regarding (the) newly developed product. Risk is inevitable in the NPD process since the outcome cannot be known beforehand, even though too much risk may be harmful… (A) new product may fail in the marketplace but if no risks are taken, no new products will ever be marketed.”
Not surprisingly, the surveyed teams that took greater risks also produced more innovative products according to their leaders. High reflexivity plus high risk-taking equated to the highest levels of product newness and uniqueness. But reflexivity was so important, low-risk teams created products nearly as innovative as high risk-takers if they stopped to reflect on their results and apply the lessons. In fact, teams with high product knowledge and project management skills were more innovative only if they took the time to reflect.
By itself the study is too limited in size and methods to constitute proof, but it illustrates the direction research is taking in a way that might help you get more creativity from your team. In the next topic, I suggest that PM techniques were born in the chaotic search for a working atomic bomb design despite a huge number of options and technology hurdles. Like it or not, the project produced the intended result in a short three years.
If you are using project management in your work, don’t wait until the end of the project to hold a lessons-learned meeting. Hold one at least monthly, and at the end of the session ask how the team’s project plans should be changed to apply the lessons. If you are not using project management, at least borrow the concept of the Retrospective from Agile software development. Every two to four weeks, hold a meeting in which you answer as a team these three questions:
- What has gone right since the last retrospective?
- What has not gone well?
- What should we do differently until the next “retro?”
Then create a list of action items for implementing those changes. I think you will quickly come to value the way stopping helps you to move forward.
- Jacobs, S., and D. Blustein (2008), “Mindfulness as a Coping Mechanism for Employment Uncertainty,” The Career Development Quarterly 57:174.
- Kapleau, P. (1980), Zen Dawn in the West. Anchor Books: Garden City, N.Y. (p. 214).
- Lee, L., and B. Sukoco (2011), “Risk-Taking as a Moderator of the Effect of Team Reflexivity on Product Innovation: An Empirical Study,” International Journal of Management 28(4):263.
I understand why teams resist using formal project management like task definition and planning for risks. Some project managers are more focused on paperwork than people, on meeting the project’s objectives than pleasing the customer and team members. They resist major changes to the work requirements (the “scope”) because of the impact on time and budget, even when there are good reasons for the changes. Some teams resist project management because they think “we don’t know enough” about the final result for it to work.
Admitting my bias as a certified project manager, I believe this is another example of BWBS (“Baby with Bathwater Syndrome”) thinking. The fact that some project managers (PMs) are inflexible does not counter the value of project management any more than poor software developers diminish the value of software development. Done right, project management remains the only way to obtain a defined deliverable at the best balance of quality, time, and price. Agile methods embrace change to focus on customer satisfaction. Furthermore, two European business researchers argued in an article in California Management Review, there is no reason project management cannot have a role in tasks with many unknowns. Sylvain Lenfle and Christoph Loch say the discipline was born while creating innovation and developing strategy along with the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project. Lenfle is with the Univ. of Cergy-Pontoise and Ecole Polytechnique, and Christoph Loch is at INSEAD, a global graduate business school.
As of 1942 when the project began, no one had a clue about the best way to build an atomic bomb. Lead scientist Robert Oppenheimer outlined no fewer than five different designs in a seminar that year, and the estimate for how much nuclear material was needed varied by a factor of ten. The PM, Gen. Leslie Groves, later wrote, “‘My position could well be compared with that of a caterer who is told he must be prepared to serve anywhere between ten and a thousand guests,'” Lenfle and Loch report. The project’s scientists weren’t even sure which of two nuclear materials to use, or how best to refine them.
So the project tried everything. This became known as “concurrency,” Lenfle and Loch say: “the simultaneous (or overlapped) performance of logically sequential tasks.” This would be dismissed as a waste of time and money today, they write. But picking any one approach would likely have wasted far more. As these efforts reduced the uncertainty around the project, less viable options were abandoned. Suppose one of them had been the only one chosen. The project likely would have failed, because it would have taken too much time to try each option in sequence. The result of a concurrent approach was a project that went from vast uncertainty to two workable results in three years. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima was of a different design and core material than the Nagasaki one.)
Two later missile projects were developed much the same way. One introduced the Program Evaluation and Review Technique that waterfall project managers will recognize as the PERT method for estimating project length. But Lenfle and Loch say this was more of a political maneuver than a real exercise in project control. As they quote from a book on the Polaris missile project, “‘The image of managerial efficiency helped the project,'” or rather helped sell the project to Congress.
Things changed when former Ford Motor Company head Robert McNamara became U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1961. The department shifted to a more cost-focused business sense, tools such as phased project plans, and use of fixed-price contracts that pushed the risk of cost overruns onto contractors. Over time, strategic decisions (like which bomb design to pursue) were moved out of the realm of project management and into the hands of high-level planners. “Project management’s role was henceforth to execute given missions…” Lenfle and Loch write. The development of the Project Management Institute (PMI, of which I am a member) in 1969 eventually codified this approach into what is known as the “project life cycle.” Lenfle and Loch define the cycle as “phases that projects go through, each having an outcome and end-review that triggers a decision about whether to start the next one.” It “takes the mission and goals as given” and works to meet the estimates for “scope, time, and cost.”
They support this model when the targets and capabilities of the project are well known and the tasks fairly easy to define. But they say PMs have given up the role they once had in determining strategy and creating innovation when uncertainty is high. Parallel trial projects helped Japanese countries overtake U.S. counterparts in automobiles and electronics. They have been used successfully to choose the best application for a new metal surface-finishing process and to create an assembly line as efficient with older workers as another with younger ones, a response to an aging workforce. These projects chose solutions instead of merely implementing them. “When discussing such examples,” the article says, “professional project managers view them as either ‘special’ (e.g., applying only to chaotic start-ups) or simply ‘sloppy’ (‘Why did they not perform better risk planning beforehand?’).”
But I think the profession is shifting back. The authors fail to mention Agile. PMI now has a certification in Agile (which I hold) and has released an Agile Guide in tandem with the PMBOK. The authors themselves note a relatively recent study of six manufacturing firms in which “projects addressed not only processes and methods, but also the product/market position.”
Lenfle and Loch say the project management discipline is in a “self-imposed ‘order taker niche'” due to historical accident rather than conscious decision. Perhaps a conscious decision to reintroduce trial-and-error and concurrent projects—or better, adopt Agile methods—in circumstances where uncertainty is high, like those in which formal project management were born, will expand the value of the profession and make it an easier sell to those who resist its cost-effective charms.
Source: Lenfle, S, and C. Loch (2010), “Lost Roots: How Project Management Came to Emphasize Control Over Flexibility and Novelty,” California Management Review 53(1):32.
For more suggestions, see the “Solution Creativity.”