How Do Teams Work Effectively?

Avoid Pitfalls

Your innovation team is a crucial factor in the success of your new project or program.  Not only does it have to be well composed and well led, it has to avoid the pitfalls that undermine the performance of so many well-meaning teams.  We’ve learned a lot from Richard Hackman of Harvard University, one of the world’s leading researchers on team performance.

Learn more – Why Teams Don’t Work: An Interview with J. Richard Hackman by Diane Coutu

Forming an Island within the Organization

Your Team is trying to work deliberately “against the grain,” in order to be able to innovate, rather than getting sucked back into minor variations on business-as-usual. This isn’t easy.

Warren Bennis studied Innovation Teams in different industries (from the Manhattan Project, to Apple, to Black Mountain College) in his study “Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration” (with Patricia Biederman) and noted that the really successful ones became what he calls “Great Groups,” which are driven to succeed, convinced that they can be “winning underdogs,” and form an Island within the organization and separate from the customary ways of doing things. This enables it to be sufficiently independent to hold to its own course. But equally crucial is that the Group maintains a bridge to the main organization so that the Group’s ultimate decisions and proposals are not simply rejected.  The 15 guidelines for creating a high-performing innovation team at the end of the study are particularly valuable.

Case Study: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

In this Innovation Story, the team from Yerba Buena discusses how they formed a number of small teams within the organization to test out different strategies.  Visit the full profile of the Immersive Visitor Experience for more on this project.

Lateral Thinking

Part of the work of Innovation Teams is to think differently, to make connections that haven’t been made in the past.  General brainstorming can be important in the early stages, but even more important is developing the capacity to think laterally.

Edward DeBono is perhaps the leading authority on this – he invented the term “lateral thinking” to describe those leaps of the imagination when we suddenly connect two things that seem unrelated, or when we see something from a new angle. Its logic is generally only seen in hindsight.  This can be a really useful way to move beyond assumed constraints in your innovation work.

Below, are two provocation exercises developed by de Bono, both are explained in his book Serious Creativity, which we recommend.

Try This: Random Input Exercise

Duration: 10 minutes per round

  • Is good for bold and rapid idea generation
  • Its deliberate absurdity provokes new insights
  • It can lead to the “illogical next step”

There are five simple steps to this exercise, which can be done singly or in groups, with someone acting as a facilitator and flip chart scribe (he or she can also contribute ideas). It takes around 10 minutes to go round once. You should repeat it a few times with different random words, and in different groups if possible.

  • Step 1: The facilitator writes up the adaptive challenge you want to address through an innovative strategy.
  • Step 2: Someone chooses a random word from a book or magazine, which the facilitator writes up.
  • Step 3: The facilitator asks for four words associated with that word, and writes them up.
  • Step 4: The facilitator, or the full group, selects one of those four words as particularly interesting and resonant (NB: Don’t pick any word that seems logically close to the challenge – go for the opposite!) .
  • Step 5: Rapidly think up new ideas that use that word to address the challenge (either calling them out for the facilitator to write up, or writing quietly individually, and then sharing).
  • Step 6: Repeat from Step 2, with a different word.

The Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference is a tool first developed by Chris Argyris in 1990 to make the process of jumping to conclusions visible.

To move up the ladder of inference take milliseconds. We do it all day long. Our colleague Phil MacArthur has written and talked extensively about the topic. From him, we’ve learned that in order to come down the ladder of inference, you need to:

  • make your thinking transparent by revealing your assumptions
  • invite others to question and test your assumptions
  • use inquiry to investigate the assumptions of others
  • don’t disagree too soon, explore impasses

Learn more:

Balancing Advocacy and Inquiry

Balancing advocacy and inquiry allows for constructive two-way communication by exposing our reasoning and allowing others to challenge and probe our argument.

  • Advocacy is stating your views, supporting your viewpoint with a relational argument, and remaining open to alternative views.
  • Inquiry is about raising and answering genuine questions about reasoning and conclusions.

Advocacy and inquiry alone are insufficient for effective communication, to inspire people to action, and to manage conflict. The diagram below, from Up and Down the Ladder of Inference by Bob Larcher, is an overview of the various balances of advocacy and inquiry.

Learn more:

Engaging in Dialogue

Dialogue is a form of conversation that is distinct from discussion, debate, distraction, dismissal, delegation, disingenuous, diatribe, and dogma because dialogue is the only form of communication where the participants act as authentic peers.

Learn more:

Karina Mangu-Ward is the former Director of Strategic Initiatives at EmcArts.