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?