I am not talking about the World Cup here. (Nothing is less likely.) I’m talking about the kind of teams you long to lead or belong to. Creative, sparky, fun – in short, a joy to work with. Projects become a symphony written by talented soloists, each drawing on their particular strengths to contribute to the whole, to something bigger, braver and better. The leader is simply a facilitator, smoothing the path to ensure nothing impedes the progress of these artists.
Sometimes it’s not like this at all. Some teams are held together by nothing stickier than a department title. Meetings are less a meeting of minds than a collision of egos. Scoring points and politics take precedence over building anything new. Believe me, I have been in those teams. It’s not pretty.
So what factors make the difference between a creative dream team and one that’s dead in the water?
1) Diversity of the team members. The more diverse the group in terms of background, gender, ethnicity, experience and so on, the more perspectives will be brought to an issue. Creativity often springs from making connections between one domain and another. Bar-coding parcels and bar-coding patients to track their progress through a system works in translation. Understanding and respecting different personality preferences for thinking and communicating is key.
2) Cross-functional teams. Looking at an issue from the point of view of one department is short-sighted. If the team is genuinely looking to improve the organisation as a whole, then working in silos is definitely counter-productive. Yes there will be conflict at times, but handled well, can be constructive.
3) Psychological safety. There is a balance to be struck. On the one hand, there must be an environment in which every team member feels able to contribute an idea or opinion without being met by howls of derision and sarcasm (or even a silent . On the other hand, too much cosy safety leads to dulled thinking and the possibility of ‘groupthink’. A true learning environment is one where ‘failing forwards’ happens. Failure does not equal disaster, but an opportunity to reflect, learn and hone thinking, not abandon it.
4) All of the above demand skilful leadership: a role model who exemplifies the behaviour and creates the culture that’s needed for innovation. A leader who sets the scene for a creative team is curious, playful, motivated, ego-less, secure and tolerant. As Warren Bennis wrote in Organizing Genius: The secrets of creative collaboration,
“Devising and maintaining an atmosphere in which others can put a dent in the universe is the leader’s creative act.”