Monday, 10 September 2012

How to leverage the diversity of teams for creative outcomes

Received wisdom suggests more diverse teams reach more creative outcomes. Yet research is equivocal, suggesting there may be specific conditions that allow diversity to pay off. Research from Erasmus University in Rotterdam suggests that one such condition is how prepared members are to take each others' perspectives.

The potential benefits of diversity were well-expressed by van Knippenberg and colleagues some years back, in their categorisation-elaboration model. This suggests that diversity is most useful as it offers deeper elaboration: expanding on, exploring and contesting the views of other members to reach richer, more tested positions, providing the opposite of group-think. Elaboration has been shown to depend on the nature of the task and on the members having the necessary ability and motivations. In their recent article, Inga Hoever and her team examined whether the approach taken by the team could be another factor.

The study asked three-person teams to attempt a task to improve a fictional theatre's position by coming up with a creative action plan. Diversity was manipulated by giving some teams assigned roles - an Artistic, Event, and Finance Manager - whereas members of other teams held unnamed, generic positions. All teams received guidance on the key artistic, events and finance goals for the theatre: one concise package for generic members or split out, fleshed out, and handed out to the corresponding specialist manager.

In addition, some teams (both multi-role and generic) fell into a perspective-taking condition, where they were encouraged - both verbally and through an example-filled instructions page - to take each other's perspectives as much as possible during the activity. After an individual preparation period, teams spent twenty minutes together preparing an action plan, which was subsequently coded for novelty and value of ideas; both were necessary to deem a plan creative.

Manipulation checks confirmed that the multi-role teams began with more varied viewpoints (based on what members judged as the biggest priorities, recorded after reading their briefs but just before the discussion began), and teams asked to take perspectives had actually done so (based on ratings at the study close). Alone, neither factor had a significant influence on the creativity of the action plans created. But when teams both were multi-role and engaged actively in perspective taking, they performed better than the rest.

What's more, when the research team used video footage to rate teams on how much they engaged in elaboration - acknowledging and building on suggestions, synthesising ideas - they obtained scores that were also higher for diverse teams that explicitly took perspectives. Moreover, analysis confirmed elaboration scores were a mediator for how diversity influenced creativity for perspective-taking teams. When diverse teams make effort to engage in perspective, this facilitates elaboration during the task, leading to more novel, valuable outcomes.

The useful thing about this study is that having more individual ability to elaborate, or the ideal task, isn't always an option. Here we see evidence that altering the process of a creative task can play a part in unlocking the best that diverse perspectives have to offer.

ResearchBlogging.orgHoever, I. J., van Knippenberg, D., van Ginkel, W. P., & Barkema, H. G. (2012). Fostering Team Creativity: Perspective Taking as Key to Unlocking Diversity's Potential Journal of Applied Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029159


  1. I believe that having diversity on teams is not necessarily always a creative or the best outcome for anything. Yes, you can have different perspectives on life and have different views on everything and learn new things that you may have not learned before. But it may not help you win anything or have a successful team, it will just help you learn some new things that you may not have known before.

  2. A fascinating subject. As Nancy Adler's research revealed, diverse teams perform better when the leader takes a positive role in incorporating different perspectives and the team itself fosters a positive outlook towards differences in approach and interaction. However the reality we observe is that diverse, multicultural teams generallly take longer to reacha satisfactory result than monocultural teams - so effectiveness depends on how important it is to incorporate different points of view, versus just getting the job done in the time available

  3. Hi Jan and Courtney,

    Thanks for your comments, which dovetail nicely. It definitely seems clear that when we talk about diversity - as with so many variables in applied psychology - it's not so much a case of 'is it good?' but 'good for what?' Under the right conditions, creating innovative solutions appears to be one answer, drawing on emergence due to a range of perspectives. But in other situations, a more homogeneous group may fit the task better.

    Also, thanks for raising the Adler data.