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Giving teams autonomy optimizes creativity, report says

by Avery Ruxer Franklin

New paper examines decade of studies to identify best team design

Organizations trying to create cultures of innovation increasingly turn to teams of employees instead of individuals, but there have been few studies on how to build teams for best results. Now a new paper incorporating decades of research offers insights on the best way to design innovative teams.

Jing Zhou

“Teams, often over individuals, are expected to be problem-solvers, but there’s currently more research focused on independent creative idea production and implementation,” said Jing Zhou, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “There’s much that’s unknown about group dynamics’ effect on team innovation.”

Zhou and a group of her fellow researchers set out to discover how different aspects of team design — composition, task structure, management support — relate to creativity and innovation. They conducted a meta-analysis of 134 field studies representing 11,353 employee teams and 35 student studies representing 2,485 student teams. Their newly published paper on the topic is entitled, “Building blocks of idea generation and implementation in teams: A meta-analysis of team design and team creativity and innovation.”

“Because a single primary study tends to contain measurement or statistical limitations and noises, a meta-anlaysis tends to do a better job in revealing true relations among variables than any single primary study included in the analysis,” Zhou said.

The authors found the best practice is to not only give teams autonomy, but also structure them to work interdependently — in other words, make their tasks and goals interconnected and aligned rather than siloed

“This relationship is more positive when leaders emphasize the autonomy of the team than when they emphasize the autonomy of the individual team members,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, we found that leaders who restrict (team) control inhibit team creativity and innovation.”

The study also found that demographic diversity did not have a direct impact on team creativity. But there was a correlation between job-related diversity and creativity.

“Contrary to our expectation although similar to our findings for the field studies, demographic diversity has near-zero relationships to team creativity,” according to the study. “It could be that cognitive processes such as diverse perspectives and information elaboration — rather than social or motivational processes — account for how job-related diversity enhances team creativity and innovation.”

Though the study did not find a direct relationship between demographic diversity and team creativity, it found a moderated relationship in collectivistic cultures such as China and South Korea that wasn’t found in individualistic cultures such as the United States and the Netherlands.

“Values based on collectivism or individualism are likely to influence how team members think, relate to one another and regulate their behavior toward shared goals — that is, teams’ cognitive, social and motivational processes,” Zhou said.


Zhou argues that teams that are more creative have greater rates of collaboration and team potency — the shared belief that they can be effective.

“Task and goal interdependence are positively related to team creativity and innovation,” she said. “This shows the importance of structuring tasks so that team members work toward common goals. It’s likely this increases creativity by facilitating and encouraging cooperation.”

Co-authors are Kris Byron of Georgia State University, Sejin Keem of Portland State University, Tanja Darden of Towson University and Christina Shalley of the Georgia Institute of Technology.


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