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Creating an Effective Innovation Group

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In the growing competitive corporate environment, the demand for new innovative products that help drive growth becomes of vital importance.  In Businessweek magazine[1]IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano was quoted as saying “The way you will thrive in this environment is by innovating – innovating in technologies, innovating in strategies, innovating in business models”.   This sentiment is echoed in companies like Google, Nissan, and Apple to name a few.  Therefore, to meet this demand it is rather common for most companies to conduct group innovation sessions.  Considering this, the question then is how we can create an effective innovative group?

In creating this, one of the most important steps is in choosing the participants.  But what kind of person are we exactly looking for?  There are numerous personality type tests one can use to either screen job applicants, or better understand the people within an organization.  With the demand placed on innovation it is no surprise that 80 percent of fortune 500 companies use some kind of personality test, with Myers-Briggs Type Indicator being most favoured, according to an article in Psychology Today[2].  These tests not only have their pros and cons in the Psychology community, but they can also be expensive and most likely need a professional to administer.  Therefore, I propose a more simplistic approach in modelling a group and deciding participants.

For the sake of simplicity, lets draw a line representing personality types and on the left side label it “Very Artistic” while on the right side we place the label “Very Structured”.  Who might we place on the left side of our graph?  Most likely “Very Artistic” conjures to mind those who are artists, dancers, improve actors, and anyone else with a talent or career that is solely dependent upon bringing to life limitless imagination.  Therefore, on the opposite end of the spectrum, defining “Very Structured” becomes rather easy: Accountants, Engineers, Mathematicians, or any type of person who is either drawn to a very structured environment or has a very structured career.  We can then consider the span between these two extremes as the degree to which someone is near either one – taking into consideration possible outside talents, interests, level of education, etc.  In thinking of a group structure, there will be varying levels of intensity toward either end, so the use of a box will perhaps best capture this.  For example, consider a company that is primarily focused on manufacturing and selling chemicals.  I’m sure we can all agree that such a company would likely have a research and development group containing a large percentage of people with some kind of focused technical background.  We can then pictorially represent this by placing a box near the “Very Structured” side (Figure 1)

On the other hand, consider a Theatre company employing a group of interpretive dancers.  In this case, one would expect most of them to be somewhere near the “Very Artistic” side and so with a box placed there, our graph would then look a bit like Figure 2.

In looking at the differences between the two examples, it can be hypothesized that the nature of a corporation essentially preselects the members of that group and therefore makes obtaining people from different end of the spectrum rather impossible.

Therefore, with use of such a model to describe the dominant nature of a group, one can then ask: is it advantageous to select people strictly from within the group, or would it be more valuable for the company to have a sampling from different locations on the graph?

Should we primarily select within a particular segment of the spectrum, we know we would get people who share a similar educational background and interest in the field they have a career in.  However, although a broad commonality is shared, each one of us is unique and brings to the table a spectrum of emotional and intellectual diversity that in of itself may be sufficient enough to tackle the challenge at hand.  Ask the participants about their hobbies outside of work and somehow incorporate that into the session.  Discover more about the people in the session and tap into their previous experiences and talents.  Using such methods will certainly bring something different to the innovation session, but the facilitator must still be wary of how immersed they are in the challenge.  Often times, even with these techniques, it is a bit difficult to get people thinking outside of what they are familiar with.  This brings me to the next (and personally preferred) method: inviting people outside the group.

In contrast to selecting within the group, we can consider the option to select people from different locations along the plot that exist outside the group.  In doing this, a wider array of creativity and alternate viewpoints can be introduced.  Think of what would happen if someone like a magician were to attend an innovation session being conducted by an engineering firm.  Would doing this successfully contribute anything?  If we consider the art of Magic, there is clearly lots of innovation and creativity that goes into any small to large illusion.  Therefore, one way to utilize someone like this would be to have them perform a few small tricks.  After each one, the engineers would be challenged to try and think of different ways it could have been accomplished.  In doing this, the engineers will essentially be solving a rather unique puzzle while getting their minds primed to think in a different way.  Have the magician then reveal the trick and allow the group to discuss the different ways they approached an explanation to what they just saw.  This is just one example of taking someone near what we termed “Very Artistic” and placing them into the group that may be more near the “Very Structured”.  I am sure with a bit of your own creativity you can come up with other examples.

With both options discussed, is one technique better than the other?  I challenge you to come to your own conclusion, but to those who think something very specific and technical is best solved by a room of PhD’s using complex equations – remember one important thing: Kekule daydreaming about a snake biting its own tail provided the structure for Benzene, which at the time revolutionized the field of Organic Chemistry.

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Are Schools Killing Creativity?

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So far this blog has covered topics mainly focused on how to better enable innovation within your organization. But what if one of the problems you are facing is an educational system that produces people lacking creativity?

Here is Sir Ken Robinson making the case for re-imagining our educational systems and ultimately how we train people.

Decreasing Conformity in an Innovation Session

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If I were to ask you to quickly recall the last session you went to, most likely the first thing you will say is “Well, a group of us got together and…”  You will probably then continue to focus on what activities were done, where you went, and the results that were obtained. However, a critically important component is often overlooked – the effect of the group on an individual.  Are individuals in a group setting really contributing to the best of their abilities?  Yes, we all know there are the introverts and the extroverts, but despite that we still get the best from each person, right?  Don’t be so sure.

Lines from the Asch Conformity experiment.

Consider the Solomon Asch conformity experiment: A straight line was shown to a group of college students who were all in on the experiment except for a single test subject.  In the test, a card with a straight line (line A) was shown, followed by a card with another set of lines (lines B,C,D).  When asked which line is closest to A, all the students who were part of the experiment were instructed to purposefully give the wrong answer (line C).  Because the experiment was preceded by several sets of cards where correct answers were given by the group, and trust established, the test subject was in a position of distress: follow the group or give the correct answer?  Over-all, the test subject gave the wrong answer (line C) 32% of the time.  During the course of repeating the experiment, about 75% of the time the subject conformed at least once.  Only rarely was an individual observed who gave the right answer (line B) each time, while there was a minority (5%) that conformed to the group every time.

Experiments like this one and others that have been conducted in the field of Social Psychology demonstrate “Conformity”.  According to Elliot Aronson, author of The Social Animal, conformity is defined as “a change in a persons behaviour or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people.”  There are several factors that contribute toward conformity, but for simplicity, the main factor to consider is the desire for one to be accepted by his/her group of peers.  Considering this, the question for the innovator becomes one of how can we lessen this tendency and encourage more individuality when placed in a group setting?

The answer depends to a large extent on how the innovation session is conducted.  There are numerous techniques to engage people and bring out their creativity that are readily found in books, online, and even from professional facilitators.  Everything from the colour of the room to specific physical activities has been reviewed at one time.  However, one thing not often addressed is how to decrease conformity in a group and nurture an environment where individuals can contribute more to the innovation session.

Ok, so now what?  How do we do this you ask?  As one may expect, the size of the group has an effect on whether or not someone conforms to the group they are in.  As Rod Bond from the University of Sussex[1] describes, a maximum of 3 to 5 people induce this behaviour (with 5 people being where it levels out), while groups of two drastically reduce the effect.  This also ties into the next point: having an ally.  In a variation of the experiment conducted by Asch as previously described, one of the students acted as an ally to the test subject.  Just as before, all the students gave the wrong answer except for one student who was instructed to give the correct answer.  In this situation, when the time came for the test subject to provide an answer, the correct one was given.  What happened? The pressure to conform was drastically reduced.  What does this tell us? Try breaking your large group into smaller groups of two to accomplish a task.  Encourage those paired up together to share something funny about themselves.  In doing so, you will not only help people create an “ally”, but conformity will have been reduced because you have broken down the larger group.

Some other things you may want to try:

  1. Break a complex problem down into smaller, more manageable parts.  Typically when members of a group are uncertain about a problem, they begin to look to others for confirmation.
  2. Conduct innovation sessions without the presence of either someone of authority (e.g. Managers or Directors) or an expert in the field that is the focus of the innovation session.   This will reduce the tendency of others in the group to look to such figures of authority for approval by agreeing with them.
  3. Create an activity where members need to make a commitment to their initial judgment, idea, or response.  In doing so, their probability to change their mind or conform to the group will greatly decrease.

Why is this important for innovation sessions?  Think about it: the Asch experiment drives home that in a typical session, there is a high probability that people will not be giving their own true answer or contribution.  By using these techniques, the innovation session facilitator can likely maximize the contribution from each person and hopefully obtain even more ideas and increased levels of creativity.

Resources

Aronson, Elliot. The Social Animal.  10th ed.New York: Worth Publishers, 2008.

Gleitman, Henry, Alan J. Fridlund, and Daniel Reisberg.  Psychology.  6th ed.New York: Norton, 2004.


[1] Bond, Rod; Group Process & Intergroup Relations, 2005 Vol 8(4) 331-354