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Every Innovative Team Needs a Conformist

I'm trying to recall how many times in my professional life I've sat in a meeting and heard an exchange like this one:

Person 1: "[Explanation of a brilliant, innovative idea.]"

Person 2: "That's a great idea! I'll make sure it gets implemented!"

Well, I know how many times I've heard that: Never. Usually the response is a little more like this:

Person 2: "That's a great idea! [Person 3, not sitting in the room] would be a perfect person to do it!"

I'm not immune; I'm much more likely to be Person 2 than Person 1. It's not that we're slackers, really. It's just that the business of giving ideas a real-world shape---the un-fun part, the implementation piece, the piece that happens well before we get to congratulate ourselves about a job well done---can be a lot harder than the idea-generation piece. I have this on my mind having read Jamie Notter's smart, provocative post, "The Down-Side of Great Ideas," which lays out this frustration in unmissable bold type: "We are stuck because we assume that we can separate thought from action and still manage to make change."

So what gets us unstuck? There's no easy answer to that, but there's something to be said for two things: First, tamping down our enthusiasm for thinking that innovation and ideation are the be-all-end-all of what teamwork is, and second, intentionally building teams that are a smart mix of thinkers and doers.

That's the message of an article titled "Conformists Boost Creativity," (subscription req'd) published in the Spring 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article discusses research by a group of scholars that suggests there are three distinct cognitive styles: creative, conformist, and attentive to detail. That third style can stifle innovation, the researchers argue, because attentive-to-detail types are overly concerned with picayune matters and are easily frustrated by ambiguity. (I'm guessing the researchers, were they feeling less diplomatic, would've called this style "anal-retentive fussbudgetry.") Conformists are conformists because they're more concerned with how the work gets done than brainstorming, but that's a valuable role when a team is stuck, or just too in love with their brilliance to actually act on their ideas.

"Managers should look not just at what they need and what this person knows [when assembling teams], but also how this person's personality can affect the dynamic on the team," says one of the researchers, Ella Miron-Spektor. "The ideal team should include a relatively large proportion of creative members, a lower proportion of conformists, and not more than one or two members who pay attention to detail."

You're probably thinking the same thing I did: I'm a mix of cognitive types, and I can't be pigeonholed as a creative, conformist, or whatever. But there's an easy way to tell, isn't there? We just have to listen to ourselves in those meetings. When do we step up to do something? When do we punt it to Person 3?



Assessments for individuals' contributions to the innovation process are available to help folks (and teams) uncover exactly what the article describes. Two commonly used ones are (1) Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory, and (2) the Team Dimensions Profile. Mark Anderson from the American Society of Surgery for the Hand spoke about how he uses the latter during a session at Great Ideas in 2011.

In addition to looking at what contributions people can make, we also can think about these different tendencies as stages in the ideation process and use process tools to involve whatever individuals we are working with to ensure each of the stages is appropriately addressed. This is particularly useful when you don't have much say in the composition of a team or work group.

Without having read the article you cite, I find the choice of the term "conformist" interesting. In my experience, people who fit this description aren't just interested in "how work gets done" in the "who is going to do what" sense of the phrase but in the "this is how we MUST do it" sense as well. In other words, conformists may unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) undermine innovation by demanding their associations perform creative work in traditional, standardized and uncreative ways.

As I mentioned in my comment on Jamie's post, it's not just how we think, but what we have been taught to think that matters. For all of the recent emphasis on innovation in the association community, it cannot cancel out the decades of orthodoxy that permeate every aspect of organizational conversation and decision-making. Too many associations default to the same untested assumptions and beliefs in their pursuit of solutions to intractable problems. We repeat new mantras, such as "don't fear the loss of control," that are easily negated by the strength of the orthodoxies to which we remain committed.

Thank you for your comments. Jeffrey, I like your idea of being intentional about having people identify the roles they play (or don't) in ideation process. If there are particular "process tools" out there, I'd love to hear about them. Is this the sort of thing that can be baked into performance reviews, or does that risk intimidating people who feel like they'll be punished if they're not "team players" in a particular way?

And Jeff, you're right of course that "conformist" has a potentially negative connotation. There's a complex game of push and pull here, isn't there? You need to create an environment where innovation can take place, but you also need the trains to run on time. I suppose that's why innovation researchers stay busy.

Mark, in terms of resources, here are two:

The Ten Faces of Innovation that Tom Kelley talks about in his book of the same name could just as easily thought of as process questions instead of individual behaviors/styles.

Gamestorming by David Gray (gogamestorm.com) is a fieldbook of process tools and exercises.

The Bootcamp Bootleg free PDF from Stanford's d-school also has some rgeat process tools. dschool.stanford.edu/wp.../03/BootcampBootleg2010v2SLIM.pdf

Thank you, Jeffrey! I'll check these out.

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