Why Conformists Are a Key to Successful Innovation
October 2, 2013 Editor 0
When my colleagues and I were interviewing a corporate executive about innovation practices, we heard something very interesting that says a lot about the risk of involving too high a proportion of creative people in a radical-innovation group.
The company had set up an “innovation forum” where employees could meet every two weeks to talk about new ideas. Managers expected wonderful things to come out of it. The forum attracted some of the smartest people in the organization, and after two years, a lot of excellent and radical ideas had been discussed.
But not one of the ideas was implemented.
The company realized that the execution problem had to do with the composition of the group. The forum was mainly attracting creative people.
Taking that insight as a cue, my colleagues Miriam Erez and Eitan Naveh of Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and I began looking at what makes an optimum innovation team – obviously you need creatives, but what other cognitive styles might be necessary?
We found that conformists, of all people, are the key to balancing the creatives. If you have the right proportion of conformists on an innovation team, they can dramatically increase its output of radical innovations – not just ideas, but workable products.
Creative people’s tendency to generate conflict and their dislike of rules may hinder team performance. Conformists, by contrast, diminish conflict, follow the rules, and contribute to their group’s confidence and cohesion.
Roughly speaking, on the most innovative teams we studied, creatives constituted 20% to 30% of members, and conformists were 10% to 20%. People who scored high on “attention to detail” accounted for up to 10%. The rest represented a mix of thinking styles – people who don’t score high any of the three cognitive styles.
So let’s say you’re building a radical-innovation team. How can you know who’s a conformist? There are psychological tests you can use, but we’ve found that managers who truly know their people tend to be able to pick out the conformists, just as they can pick out the creatives.
Conformists tend to be the people who know how to get along with others. They know how the system works and they adhere to the rules. They have an eye for which ideas will be accepted by others.
As you build your team, be careful not to overdo it on detail people, who tend to be risk-averse and uncomfortable with ambiguity. They can squelch nascent ideas. You don’t want the detail people forming a bloc.
You might get lucky and find creative people who are also conformists. Those people do exist. In our study of 468 people, we found that 7% scored high on two of the three cognitive styles. You might even find creative people who are conformists and detail-oriented. But don’t hold your breath: Just 3% of the people we studied scored high on all three styles.
And don’t overlook the importance of the people who are “none of the above.” I believe that people who don’t score high on any of the three styles tend to be the ones who form bridges among the creatives, the conformists, and the detail-oriented people. They foster understanding among the different types.
Creative people can be disruptive. Managers sometimes use negatives in describing them: hasty, absent-minded, argumentative, easily distracted, antisocial, even “strange.” But they’re critically important to innovation. Their uniqueness helps them see beyond the commonplace. The trick is building an innovation team that will nurture and constructively filter their ideas, putting their special talents to work for the benefit of the organization.Executing on Innovation
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