How Can You Boost Creative Success in a Team?


As a young manager, I learned that you may be able to invent alone, but you cannot innovate alone. You will need an awful lot of colleagues, partners and bosses to make innovation really happen. That’s because after the ideation of your product, you’ll need to design it, to develop it, to prototype it, to test it, to produce it, to sell it, to invoice it and to service it.

Back in 1989, Steve Jobs had already pointed out the importance of the right team during an interview for Fortune Magazine: “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.[i]

I would like to inspire you with two recent studies on teamwork in new product development. They generate great lessons to be learned; one being about creative success and the other being  about high team performance. Both are essential at the start of innovation.

New scientific research reveals insights into how some of the world’s greatest video games were created from the adventures of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider to the apocalyptic drama of Fallout. Mathijs de Vaan, David Stark and Balazs Vedres focused on the question: what accounts for creative success when you’re innovating in a team?[ii] Their extensive research focused on the video games industry. They collected data on 12,422 video games that were produced from the inception of the industry in 1979 to 2009 and on the teams that developed them.

Here’s a selection of some of their scientific findings:

·     Game changers are likely to be developed by teams that include cognitively different groups (subgroups with varying cognitive sets) that tolerate and exploit overlapping membership across such groups.

·     Tensions within teams allow for the development of products that stand out.

·     A game is more distinctive if the developer team accommodates larger cohesive groups but this effect declines as the mean size of groups grows further.

·     Teams comprising industry veterans are less likely to produce games that deviate from the norm. Including newcomers is a significant positive predictor of distinctiveness.

·     Teams with many above-average developers are unlikely to develop distinctive games, while teams with a few absolute standouts (and some that performed poorly in the past) are more likely to produce creative outliers.

·     Games developed and published by one firm are more likely to be distinctive than games produced by multiple firms, as less negotiation is necessary and consensus need to be reached.

·     Teams embedded within older firms produce games that are less likely to stand out, which proves that older firms, which have established their position within the industry, are less likely to provide the context in which distinctive games can be developed.

·     Teams with high cohesion, but with cognitively close developers lead to a narrow focus.

·     Creative success was facilitated when cognitively distant groups were socially folded. Yes, something must be shared. But it is not necessarily mutual understanding. It creates a workable space where some misunderstanding is tolerated.

In summary, Professor David Stark says the most successful new video games were created because the creative teams behind the most iconic video games had the ideal mix of career backgrounds and working relationships.

There are 7 important lessons for you to boost creative success in your team at the start of innovation:

1.    Set up your innovation team as “a group of groups”.

2.    Make the ‘cohesive groups’ within the team larger.

3.    Work on group tolerance.

4.    Tension sparks creativity in a tolerant group.

5.    Include newcomers.

6.    ‘One-firm’ teams need to compromise less and make more distinctive concepts.

7.    Compose a team of cognitively different innovators.