Under what conditions do teams, introverts, and innovation go together?
Properly structured and led, teams can support innovative thinking that depends on contributions from both extroverts and introverts. That's the consensus of respondents to this month's column who described their successful and unsuccessful experiences with teams.
Improper uses of teams were cited. Phil Clark said that "Often teams are formed to 'look good' but truly are not teams… Ownership of the outcome is directly related to the success of a team." Stan was concerned with "freeloading" in teamwork and the importance of measuring the quality of the contribution that individuals make to a team. Tom Dolembo pointed out that "Teamwork isn't about falling backwards into a mattress, it is about a specific skill… Unless teaming is approached as a process that includes those who form the team and who will benefit from it, we are discussing a hostage situation."
Limits to the use of teams in the innovation process were suggested by Adetola, who commented that "in the field of technology/science and other spheres where deep disruptive creative thinking is required, we might find that we truly need to identify and encourage introverts … I wonder if Einstein's creative unconventional thinking was suppressed what the world would have lost."
Most respondents offered advice for insuring the effective use of teams. Much of it concerned team leadership.As Jack Slavinski put it, "Nothing beats first hand leadership observation … Part of that guidance needs to be providing coaching and mentoring to the more dominant members of the team … and most importantly knowing when and how to step in (to) provide guidance or intervention." Yadeed Lobo suggested this measure of effective team leadership: "Can team members dole out and respond openly to constructive challenges to ideas and solutions? … Strong principled leadership recognizes this dynamic and addresses it before it makes teaming structures self destructing." Ravindra Edirisooriya suggested that the "team leader should (among other things) … listen objectively … (be) willing to learn continuously …. Not be afraid to fail … accept responsibility for failures as a team leader and accept credit for success as a team."
Regarding the use of teams in the innovation process, Vimi Jain suggested that "(Innovation) Teams are formed based on relevant strengths each individual possesses for the problem at hand. As a result, there is a good mix of introverts and extroverts… Introverts (including myself) are not people-phobic. They just want to be in their comfort zone of known people."
Heidi Gardner, an HBS faculty member, cited the importance of context in determining the appropriate deployment of teams this way: "Asking a simple question about teamwork's outcomes is akin to querying, 'Is surgery good or bad?' Obviously, the answer is, 'it depends.'… Clearly, there are many … factors relating to the context, the people, the problem, and so on that one needs to consider when deciding whether to implement teamwork …"
This comment suggests what may be a better question: Under what conditions do teams, introverts, and innovation go together? What do you think?
We live in the age of transparency, open workspaces, co-location, and collaboration. An entire generation is being prepared to enter workplaces like this, organizations that reward extroverts who show initiative in stepping forward to shape the nature of the conversation of work and the ideas it generates.
The work they do will be carried out in groups ranging from assigned teams to fluid groups engaged in what Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson, in the recent book Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, calls "teaming," defined as "coordination and mutual adjustment during episodes of interdependent work."
Teaming is a process by which participants and entire organizations learn and innovate while carrying out day-to-day assignments. Increasingly, Edmondson maintains, coordination and collaboration are occurring in temporary groups requiring teaming skills, rather than in traditional stable, well-designed teams that rely on managers' abilities to form and lead them.
Leading business schools honor such behavior. At Harvard Business School, one of the first things new MBA candidates experience is introduction to their pre-selected Learning Team, whom they will work on an almost daily basis through much of at least one year. It's an essential element of a program that places special emphasis on, and rewards, verbal contributions to classes as well as leadership of teamwork both inside and outside the classroom. It is not an environment that rewards introverts. (Most conversations between faculty and failing MBA students are about helping the students overcome their fears of engaging in classroom discussion, to improve the frequency of their classroom contributions.)These are all points made in a new book by Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Cain cites ways in which teamwork can suppress the most important kinds of creativity and innovation. Overbearing team leaders, the desire to conform in face-to-face relationships, free riding team members, the dominance by articulate extroverts of more creative introverts, all restrict a group's creativity. Even techniques such as brainstorming have been shown to be much less effective in advancing creative solutions than they are satisfying to those who engage in them. She excludes from this criticism the kind of teamwork that often occurs in open systems on the Internet, which she believes accommodates contributions from both extroverts and introverts and reduces the influence of the former.
Teams comprising both extroverts and introverts, particularly those with diverse backgrounds, have been shown to have a lot of creative potential if managed properly. But Cain's argument is that, as a society, extroversion is encouraged, developed, and recognized in so many ways that introverts—with their abilities to work alone, sometimes focusing on complex problems, not relying on feedback from others—may have fewer opportunities to shape creative solutions.
It is perhaps too soon to know just how teamwork is affecting creativity and innovation in organizations. But based on your own experiences, do the ideas cited above ring true? What can or should be done to encourage both extrovert and introvert behaviors? How will the trend toward work in teams affect US innovation? Should we rethink the promise of teams? What do you think?
To Read More
Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Crown Publishers, 2012.
Amy Edmondson, Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Jossey-Bass, 2012.Maggie Starvish, Teaming in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 2012.