Wondering why your teams aren’t more creative and innovative? Maybe they are stopping themselves.

Knowledge@Wharton interviewed two of the authors of the “Idea Generation and the Quality of the Best Idea” article, Wharton Professors Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, in an article called “How Group Dynamics May Be Killing Innovation.” The goal, they said, should be about finding good ideas, not simply increasing the number of ideas.

When it comes to innovation “what really matters is not getting many good ideas, but getting one or two exceptional ideas. That’s really what innovation is all about,” says Terwiesch.

But if you’re getting lots of ideas, shouldn’t that naturally lead to more “exceptional ideas?”

Not necessarily.

“The evaluation part is critical.,” Terwiesch says. “It’s no good generating a great idea if you don’t recognize the idea as great. It’s like me sitting here and saying I had the idea for Amazon. If I had the idea but didn’t do anything about it, then it really doesn’t matter that I had the idea.”

And project teams are not very good at recognizing and developing great ideas. For example, here are 4 reasons that team dynamics can get in the way of innovation:

  • Team members self-censor themselves to avoid upsetting a colleague or to go along with the status quo
  • Too many people in the room doesn’t provide enough time for everybody to be heard and have their ideas discussed
  • “Build-up” or the tendency of people to expand on ideas that have already been accepted by the team at the expense of considering other ideas
  • The tendency to defer to authority or up the hierarchical team structure, i.e. “the boss is always right”

Also, Terwiesch says, “We find huge differences in people’s levels of creativity, and we just have to face it. We’re not all good singers and we’re not all good runners, so why should we expect that we all are good idea generators?”

What are some things that teams can do to work around the innovation-killing team dynamics?

In their book “Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities,” Terwiesch and Ulrich suggest that putting more structure around the early idea generation process can help ensure that quality ideas bubble to the surface. They recommend using a virtual “suggestion box” to collect ideas and “coordinated competitions” to filter exceptional ideas.

Terwiesch adds, “People like having a process because they understand that it’s fair. In a typical brainstorming meeting, it’s not fair and everybody knows it: The boss is always right.”

He also says that it is important to prevent the group dynamics in brainstorming sessions from killing early ideas. “Your initial thoughts are very vital to the company because they are your unbiased opinion.”

According to Ulrich, “We have found that, in the early phases of idea generation, providing very specific process guideposts for individuals [such as] ‘Generate at least 10 ideas and submit them by Wednesday,’ ensures that all members of a team contribute and that they devote sufficient creative energy to the problem.”

The next time you’re looking for innovative ideas, consider trying the virtual suggestion box, and then focus on evaluating the ideas that were generated. If you have a large team, consider breaking the team into smaller groups while being conscious of the social and organizational hierarchy and personalities within each small group.

Finally, consider using a “Positive, Negative, Interesting” (PNI) parallel thinking structure around the discussions. Using this approach, the team evaluates each idea in only one area at a time. So when the “Positive” idea characteristics are evaluated, only positive attributes of the idea are discussed and recorded, and when “Negative” characteristics are evaluated, only the downsides of the idea are discussed and recorded. The “Interesting” characteristics are the neutral or “just the facts” attributes of the idea.

Once teams get used to this approach and experience the value in it, they become more self-directed and peer pressure alone keeps the discussions on-track.

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