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FCW : February 2013
STEVE KELMAN is professor of public management at Harvard University s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Of ce of Federal Procurement Policy. Commentary | 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 t into the category of research that does not establish the obvious. The nding? 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: Rec- onciling the Innovation Paradox," was written by Ella Miron-Spektor, an organizational psychologist at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and two Israeli colleagues. It exam- ines work teams at a large Israeli defense company that are charged with developing advanced technolo- gies in areas such as microelectron- ics and communications. The authors asked members of different teams about their 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 innova- tion that their teams had attained on their projects as a whole, ranging from "duplicating exist- ing technologies" (the lowest) to "developing breakthrough tech- nologies 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 percent- age of creatives on a team, the high- er the team s supervisor-designated radical innovation score. However, having a higher proportion of con- formists 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 propor- tion to a signi cantly above-average one produced only a small further increase in radical innovation. 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 accom- plish 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 manage- ment scholar Richard Hackman --- is that managers tend to pay too much attention to team processes and not enough attention to set- ting up a team for success before it begins work, including choosing the right mix of skills and tempera- ments for team membership. And speci cally in this situa- tion, 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. ■ How to use conformists to spark creativity Research has found that, when it comes to innovators, there can be too much of a good thing The more conformists on a team, the better that team did at implementing its creative ideas. 10 February 2013 FCW.COM
March 15, 2013