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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The research was conducted across 13 different shooting sites which included two full-length projects, three documentaries, five short films, two music videos and one advertisement shooting. One of the primary conclusions of the project was that the reason why individuals working in a team exhibit varying fluency in terms of number of ideas generated is due to what I call ‘Role Evolution’. When an individual joins a project, he or she has some vague idea about his or her role in the team. However as the team starts working, over a period of time this idea about his or her role undergoes some changes which affects the individual’s behaviour while working in the team. One of the important elements of the behaviour that is influenced by the change in the individual’s role perception is expression of ideas in the team.

 

The Process of Role Evolution

The term role here refers to the way one sees oneself. In other words role is a collective set of skills, traits and characteristics that one attaches to oneself in the context of the organisation. However there are boundaries to one’s perception of one’s role. These boundaries are in terms of tasks that one assumes to be forming part, directly or indirectly, of one’s role. The role of an individual while working in a team undergoes different phases. Broadly these phases are defined as, (i) Identification of role space (ii) Initial Role enactment, (iii) Role Re-lineation and (iv) Negotiated Role enactment.

The first phase is where individuals identify role space. In other words individuals create mental frames regarding different tasks they need to carry and different skills or traits they need to exhibit. When the team starts working, individuals enact these roles. An individual’s role space is not static. It is affected by the interaction one has with one’s environment. In other words role space is a result of a constant negotiation that takes place between individual’s perception by self and others, which takes place through the continuous process of sensemaking. The process of change in an individual’s role space and through that individual’s role identity is called Role Evolution. Sensemaking is the process by which individuals give meanings to their environment and their experience. Sensemaking means attaching meaning to events, interaction and actions that take place within the dynamic organizational environment.

Sensemaking3 in a way is a continuous interaction between action and interpretation. When an individual joins the project organization, individual also commences a process of search to make sense of the role and the environment. Eventually as Blake Ashforth puts it4, “The experience of confronting this new environment is characterised by two elements, ambiguity and surprise.” Ambiguity is the result of lack of familiarity with the new situation. Because of this lack of familiarity individual tries to create a perceived image of the situation. However, when reality turns out to be different from the perception, the element of surprise is triggered. Surprise in turn triggers an attempt to reconcile this difference or an attempt ‘to make sense’ of the reality.

Individual interprets this difference and individual’s next action is influenced by this interpretation. In a creative field it is more obvious. For example, when I work in a theatre, during rehearsals at some point I try to improvise. It could be anything; an improvised dialogue or an improvised movement. I see the reaction of the director. The director’s feedback on my improvisation gives me a lot of information (apart from the judgment on whether the improvisation was good or whether it was unbearable). On one hand it gives me an idea of the extent to which I can improvise. On the other hand it gives me a better idea of the character and the play and it allows me to see the difference between my perception of the character and his. All this information that I receive influences my next action. In a similar way, in organizations, sensemaking affects the boundaries one sets for one’s role, which in turn affects the kind of ideas one expresses while working in a project team.

 

The Process of Role Evolution and Idea Expression

– Identification of Role Space

In this phase an individual develops a primary idea about the project and his or her role therein. Initial impression of role is based on either (i) previous experience or (ii) a general perception of the type of work that one is supposed to do or (iii) a combination of both. At the beginning of the project a participant creates a mental map of activities to be carried out by different individuals involved in the project based on the information collected from external sources or from the other individuals involved in the project. As mentioned earlier Role Space refers to set of tasks that individual identifies as ‘belonging’ to his/her role. For example, if I am a choreographer in a dance sequence in a musical motion picture, my role space will include tasks like shooting, creating a new choreography, instructing and training, performing etc. However in a multifunctional setting like a movie there are many tasks that need involvement of more than one individual. Individuals classify these tasks into three sections. (i) Decision Tasks, (ii) Execution Tasks and (iii) Observation Tasks.

Decision tasks are the ones where individual thinks that he/she is not only concerned about the performance of the task but is also supposed to participate actively in the decision making process relevant to the task. In such tasks individuals tend to generate ideas in order to solve a problem or simply for an improvement. Execution tasks are ones where individual includes the task in his/her role space but does not include the relevant idea generation in the role space. Finally observation task is the task that individual includes in his/her role space just in an informative role. Individual neither tries to perform these tasks nor tries to express ideas with respect to these tasks.

 

– Initial Role Enactment

The next phase of the role evolution is the role enactment. Role enactment here refers to performance of those tasks by the individual that are perceived by him/her as forming part of his/her role space. When the team actually starts executing the project, all individuals start enacting their roles according to the role boundaries they had framed in the previous phase. In multifunctional projects since most of the tasks or assignments are multi-functional, at times individuals may indulge into tasks which according to others might not belong to their ‘territory’. Hence initial role enactment might be a temporary and probably the shortest-living phase of all the role evolution phases.

 

– Role Re-lineation

Role ‘Re-lineation’ on the other hand is the process by which the individual comes to redefine his role space. As mentioned earlier this redefining of role boundaries would mean that either individual would include more activities into the role space and as a result there would be an expansion of the role space, or individual would withdraw from certain activities and as a result there would be a contraction of the role space.

When the individual actually enacts a role and interacts with others, different behavioural interfaces take place and as a result the role occupant not only identifies his/her true role boundaries but in the process re-creates or rather ‘re-lineates’ those role boundaries so as to adjust his/her behaviour. Re-lineation of roles comes into existence through the process of sensemaking. Not only that, they also re-define previously defined tasks. For example, a task that was previously an ‘Execution Task’ may be redefined as a ‘Decision Task’ and vice versa. As mentioned before, when individual integrates new activities into his/her role scope, here, it has been defined as “Role Expansion”, and when individual abandons certain activity or refrains from indulging into a particular activity, which earlier formed part of his role scope, here, it has been defined as “Role Contraction”.

 

– Idea Generation and Role Evolution

The most important and significant impact of the aforementioned role evolution during the research was observed with communication of new ideas in the team. As explained in one of the previous sections, the interesting aspect of working with movie projects is that (i) most of the tasks here are multifunctional, (ii) most of the tasks are by definition creative in nature and (iii) because of the first two characteristics, most of the individuals have ideas and opinions to share with, on more than a single task or activity. Jokingly one of the directors in one of the projects suggested that, “In a movie everyone has an opinion about everything, all the time.”5

When an individual defines a task as a Decision Task, he/she tends to generate and express ideas about that particular task. Defining a task as a Decision Task doesn’t automatically result into expression of new ideas though. Expression of a new idea depends on two factors; (i) Acceptability and (ii) Relevance. Acceptability implies that individual perceives that his/her idea will be either accepted and implemented or at least listened to. Relevance, which is more important in creativity required for a specific problem, implies that individual perceives his/her skills, characteristics, abilities, traits etc. to be relevant for the given problem. When an individual perceives such relevance, he/she engages into a creative process6.

One of the actors from one of my research sites in an interview told me that when he joined the project initially he was excited about the project and wanted to add a lot of things to his character. He also suggested that from his previous projects he thought that generally an actor discusses at length different nuances of a character and tries to do his best. Hence, when the actor started working on the project, came up with several ideas to develop his character and add some new elements to the script. Somehow, his ideas were heard but were not responded to. It’s not that they were outright rejected, but they were not accepted either. Slowly, during the process of the movie, the actor realised that what the director wanted to convey through the film was something different from what he had perceived. He also commented that no matter what the challenge would be the director would address it as a challenge of cinematography. Since the director himself was a cinematographer before, his way of understanding cinema was dominated by the language of camera and camera techniques. As a result, he felt himself quite cut-off from the collective creative process of the movie. As a result, gradually the actor stopped expressing ideas. Did he stop generating ideas? Probably not, but he definitely stopped expressing new ideas. There were no rifts, conflicts, crisis or open confrontation in the team. “Everything went on with a façade of camaraderie”, he added.

 

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In summary, individuals at the beginning of the project, depending upon their perception of their role decide whether a particular task is a decision task, observation task or an execution task. If the concerned task is a decision task, individuals participate actively in the decision making process and try to express ideas actively. However, once they make an attempt to express ideas, and if the idea or their act of expressing ideas is not met with a positive response, they engage in a sensemaking process. If they could justify the non-response to their idea and still feel that the concerned task is a decision task they may continue to express new ideas. However they may demote a Decision Task to the level of an Execution Task. In some cases they may even conclude that expression of new ideas doesn’t form part of their role space, that is, their role in the team or organization doesn’t require them to express ideas, and they may remove the action of idea expression completely from their role space. Even the opposite is possible as well. Individual may just treat a task as an execution task in the beginning but gradually may find out that he or she is required, is asked to express some ideas or solutions in a given situation. Hence, individual may update the task as a decision task and start expressing ideas. The process by which individual demotes a decision task to an execution task and discards expression of fresh ideas from the role space is known as role contraction. On the other hand, the process by which individual adds expression of fresh ideas to the role space, is known as role expansion. This is expansion of role space, as in individual makes his or her role expand to the extent of the activity of expressing new ideas.

 

What Can Management Do?

From the discussion above two things are clear. One, individuals express ideas not simply on the basis of their creative potential but also on the basis of their perception of themselves and the role they play in the team. Two, this perception of an individual about himself undergoes changes and that affects the number of ideas one generates. The challenge for management hence is to manage two components. One, a team member’s perception of the role that he or she is going to play. Two, ideas that team members have about different aspects of the organization.

 

An actively listening organisation is one that not only captures most of the ideas expressed by individuals but also encourages people to keep engaging in generating and expressing new ideas.

Managing Role Identities

How can management influence role identities of individuals in a way that would inspire individuals to generate ideas? Management can do this in two ways; through structure and through practice. One is by ensuring a mean and lean organizational structure so that individuals working especially in the lower and middle level of management don’t feel burdened by the weight of a long hierarchy. Another way of ensuring a creativogenic role identity among individuals is by observing the way problems are defined in the organization. A redefinition of a problem is a famous creativity technique. By redefining problems at times some very creative solutions can be generated. Once a co-actor told me that when a director says “I want to shoot this scene in the best possible way”, is interpreted differently from “I want this scene to be the best”. In the former situation, the cinematographer assumes greater responsibility while in the later situation everyone is more or less equally motivated. The way one defines a problem determines the area from which ideas will come. In multifunctional tasks at times, bosses who have had exposure only to one of the functional aspects (e.g. only marketing or finance) tend to define most of the multifunctional problem in terms of one function. While doing so unintentionally they close down several different probable solutions.

 

An Active Listener Organisation

Management should also treat ideas expressed by members, both formally and informally, very seriously. It’s important to make members of the organisation feel that their ideas will at least be heard. Ideas come from anywhere. Google News is one such interesting example. Krishna Bharath, a research scientist at Google, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 attacks on United States, was trying to keep himself updated from various news sources and realised that there was no efficient way to find the coverage on the same topic from various sources. He came up with an efficient solution for personal use which eventually became Google News.7,8 Yes Bank, which has emerged as the fastest growing private sector bank in India has a similar success story. In the year 2007, Vice President of Transaction Banking, Somak Ghosh suggested an idea of ‘Sustainable Investment Banking’ to the Chairman and Founder of the bank Dr. Rana Kapoor, on the pavement in front of the building of the Bank.9 Organisations should learn to be ‘Active Listeners’. An actively listening organisation is one that not only captures most of the ideas expressed by individuals but also encourages people to keep engaging in generating and expressing new ideas. It’s pardonable to accept one bad idea but it’s unpardonable to miss one good idea.

When Alex Osborn10 came up with the brainstorming technique, one of the driving notions he based his philosophy on, was that quantity begets quality – at least in creativity. It might be difficult to get one great idea but if you have hundreds of ideas, probability of getting that one great idea is much higher. So often organisations simply don’t use the creative potential of their members by not listening to them. It’s important to let your colleagues feel free to express their ideas. Organisations should be rigorous in accepting or implementing new ideas and should explore feasibility of new ideas on various organisational criteria and members of the organisation should know that. However that should not dissuade them from engaging in creative processes and getting new ideas. It’s pardonable to accept one bad idea but it’s unpardonable to miss one good idea.

About the author

Kandarp Harsiddh Mehta is a PhD from IESE Business School, Barcelona and is a Post Doctoral Fellow with the department of Entrepreneurship now. His area of interest is Creativity in organizations. He has conducted several Creativity Workshops for corporate executives and management students, independently as well as with Dr. Pradip Khandwalla, Ex-Director Indian Institute of Management India. He has co-authored two research articles with Dr. Pradip Khandwalla which have been published in respected publications.

 

References

1.For other management studies on Motion Pictures refer to Beth A. Bechky. (2006) Gaffers, Gofers, and Grips: Role-Based Coordination in Temporary Organizations. Organization Science 17:1, 3-21

2.For the sake of ease and comparability in collected data, we limited our ethnography only to the shooting process. We didn’t take into account Pre and Post production processes.

3.Also Read Weick, K.E. 1993. The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 38 (4), Dec 1993, 628-652.

4.Ashforth, B.E. 2001. Role transitions in organizational life. Erlbaum.

5.Field notes. 53.

6.For a more detailed academic discussion, Read. Drazin, R., Glynn, M. A., & Kazanjian, R. K. 1999. Multilevel theorizing about creativity in organizations: A sensemaking perspective. The Academy of Management Review, 24(2): 286-307.

7.Glaser, Mark (2010-02-04). “Google News to Publishers: Let’s Make Love Not War”. PBS. Retrieved 2010-04-02.

8.Lecture by Marissa Mayer at Stanford University, 2006. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=soYKFWqVVzg

9. “YES BANK – Banking on Innovation”, M Anand and Rajiv Bhuva, Outlook Business, September 19, 2009

10.Osborne, Alex. 1963. Applied imagination; principles and procedures of creative problem-solving. Scribner

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