Beyond innovation theatre: Breaking down the building blocks of effective team ideation

Creativity and collaboration are essential to human civilisation. We know that having better ideas, combining expertise to solve challenges and finding solutions to difficult problems are crucial to the future of our species. It is no radical thought for many organisations to seek bold ideas. But unfortunately, sometimes the way some approach optimizing internal idea generation results only in innovation theatre.

Innovation theatre often is the shallow implementation of business practices that have resulted in success elsewhere but lack the strategy behind the original concept. An example could be a ‘quirky’ office makeover that is meant to signal the organisations creativity to clients but does not improve or at worst hinders how well employees can collaborate to generate ideas in practice. Design thinking is perhaps the latest trend that has been called out as innovation theatre, with proponents pushing back against this characterisation and instead name faulty implementation as the reason for poor results from the practice.

Innovation theatre might very well come from a well-intentioned place, but poor understanding of team dynamics and the creative process on a team level hinder any actual transformation. If group creativity is broken down into an equation, the actual group creativity is the cumulative individual creativity of its members, minus process losses and plus process gains. While there has been significant research interest in process losses and how to minimize them (e.g. groupthink, social loafing, production blocking and social apprehension), process gains factors have not profited from a similar level of interest yet. So what leads to a creative group outperforming their added up individual skills and talents in idea generation?

Creative synergy is the phenomenon in which the creative group produces more than ‘the sum of its parts’ could. In practice, that could be one idea sparking another from a different team member, members combining their ideas, or improving on each other’s ideas. Four primary factors are known to impact group synergy: the mode of idea generation, the attention the group and its members pay to the task, group diversity, and group size.

Identifying and testing which mode of idea generation consistently results in the best outcome is far from having exhausted different possibilities and strategies. Some suggest that new types of shared digital ideation could be the solution, while others recommend giving each team member more personal space and time to develop ideas before bringing them together. Both concepts will be tested in my own research experiment, which I am conducting over the coming weeks at the University of Warwick.

But when trying to avoid innovation theatre, the other factors for group synergy might be even more important. Just implementing a new process, no matter how well researched and documented, means little if the other factors are not addressed. Being more conscious about the size of a team is already a valuable step. But especially group diversity deserves a closer look. In the creative industries for example, despite their reputation for openness and tolerance the workforce represents only a very narrow slice of society, resulting in little diversity which limits possible ideas and innovation. Diversity of thought is crucial for innovation, which is why implementing even a good process in a room where everyone looks alike and comes from the same background will not result in the innovation it otherwise could.

Attention is perhaps the most difficult to research. It likely in part is a function of motivation and organisational culture, which both appear to have significant impact on team creativity. Implementing even the best-tested method of idea generation in a non-complementary environment will only see the method fail. This might be one of the reasons why lab experiments rarely show positive results for methods that otherwise do show good results in practice. Therefore, simply adopting a process such as design thinking is unlikely to work without considering organisational culture. Reviewing and optimizing all factors for group synergy could be the solution that ensures implementation of new methods and structures is more than just innovation theatre and leads to genuine creative synergy, but more research on the many factors of group synergy remains necessary.