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10-25-2002

Too Much Information Kills Team Creativity, Study Shows

In a recent issue of The Harvard Business Review, an article co-written by Clarkson University School of Business Professor Rajesh Sethi challenges long-held beliefs on the roots of creative teamwork and innovative thinking in product development.

“The current wisdom is that creating a team of experts from different areas of the company –marketing, manufacturing, sales, purchasing and finance – will yield a variety of ideas and perspectives essential to creative thinking,” explained Sethi. “But we found merely including people from a large number of functional areas on a team didn’t improve its innovativeness.”

The article, “How to Kill A Team’s Creativity,” highlights the surprising results of a recent survey of 141 project managers who had led major new-product initiatives in a diverse array of consumer products industries. The research, conducted by Sethi and co-researchers Daniel C. Smith, Clare W. Barker Chair and professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, and C. Whan Park, Joseph A. DeBell Professor of Marketing at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, found that senior managers who wanted to create fertile ground for innovative teamwork needed to adjust their thinking and their policies.

Contrary to popular belief, including a wide number of functional areas doesn’t increase the effectiveness of a team. ”In fact, as diversity increases and more ideas come to the table, team problem solving gets harder,” said Sethi. “Information overload can then bog down the process.”

Instead, the research suggests it is more important that team members from various backgrounds develop a strong sense of belonging to the team and having a stake in its success. This encourages team members to find novel connections among their diverse perspectives and hence develop creative new products.

The article also challenges an article of faith regarding management oversight. Conventional wisdom promotes hands-off management to avoid inhibiting a team’s creative process. Sethi and his co-researchers found that within limits, close monitoring by senior management signals to team members that the project is important and their work highly valued.

The researchers also found that the development of strong interpersonal relationships within the group can inhibit progress. “As social ties among members of a cross-functional team intensify, the innovativeness of the product is diminished,” said Sethi. “Candid debate is critical to the process of innovation. But high social cohesion within the group can actually suppress the forthright exchange of opinions. Highly cohesive groups focus more on maintaining relationships, and thus, tend to seek concurrence and refrain from challenging each other’s ideas.”

“In the end, the research suggests that the adage ‘all things in moderation’ even applies to cross-functional teams. Too little social cohesion can be as inhibiting as too much, and managerial oversight must strike a balance between neglect and excessive control,” added Sethi.

Sethi’s research interests include new product innovation, creativity, cross-functional development teams, Web-based new product development, and integrated supply chains.
[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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