Tides and Ebbs in Idea Generation in Teams: Why Some Teams Lose Creative Steam over Time?

By Kandarp Mehta

With the rise of new organisational forms with flat structures and invisible boundaries, teams have gained tremendous importance as an organisational apparatus for execution of innovations. Organisations not only rely on teams for implementation of innovations but also for generation of fresh ideas. This has made it pertinent for a manager to understand factors that affect idea generation in teams. During one of my research interviews a senior executive of a big organisation told me this personal story. “I was asked to set up a team and develop some new ideas to compete in a very dynamic market. My track record as an efficient administrator had convinced top management of my capability to deal with the new task. I started very enthusiastically. I didn’t choose my team personally but I had laid down certain criteria and accordingly management had put together a team of highly motivated individuals for me. For first three months it all went well. I found everyone to be bubbling with ideas. However, gradually the group started falling apart. There wasn’t any apparent reason. But it just started getting too much immersed in routines. There came a point where new ideas stopped coming from the team and finally a big shake-up was needed. Some people were asked to leave while some offered to leave. In the end I left as well.” This story could be anybody’s story. Often a problem for a manager or a team leader is that at some point the team loses its creative impetus. Teams undergo different phases of creative fluency. There are times when the atmosphere in a team is buzzing with new ideas while there are times when that’s not the case.

Often we find that individuals working in a team at some point stop generating new ideas. Teams undergo different phases of creative fluency. There are times when the atmosphere in a team is buzzing with new ideas while there are times when that’s not the case.

Academic research related to generation and expression of ideas has tried to understand why and how people express ideas. However, very little is known about why some people or groups show an increase in the fluency of expression of ideas while some people lose creative ‘steam’ over time. In order to understand the process that project teams undergo with respect to generation of ideas, at IESE Business School I conducted an ethnographic research of motion picture shootings under the guidance of my colleague and mentor Antonio Dávila.

Before we proceed, let’s understand ‘Why motion pictures’? Motion pictures provide an interesting insight into the creative processes and at the same time it provides an interesting multifunctional setting.1 Theoretically almost every aspect of motion picture is a creative area. Although the type of creativity needed or exhibited is different in different areas. While a writer is trying to come up with a new story by freeing his or her imagination to the fullest, the Production Controller (or Executive Producer) may be seeking creative ways of solving some new logistic and scheduling challenges. The reason why we studied motion pictures was because we wanted to see how and why individuals over the life of the project exhibit varying fluency of expressing new ideas within a team.2

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