When you’re building an innovation team, it’s a given that you need creative people. But they’re not enough. Our research shows that groups with a variety of cognitive types produce higher levels of innovation. And getting the right balance of types is key.
We studied 41 radical-innovation teams in R&D and manufacturing units of a large defense contractor. The groups had varying proportions of three types of people—extremely creative, detail oriented, and highly conformist—along with more-general thinkers, typically the largest component. Our most surprising finding: Conformists, though they may be useless at generating breakthrough ideas, dramatically increase a team’s radical innovations.
Few managers spend much time thinking about cognitive styles or their influence on groups. Moreover, in an effort to meet strict timetables, companies such as Intel and Toyota have started placing quality and reliability engineers—detail-oriented types, to be sure—on innovation teams. They should beware of overdoing it: Large numbers of detail-oriented people can suppress creativity in their eagerness for precision. It’s important to ensure that the other cognitive styles are properly represented, too.
Ella Miron-Spektor teaches organizational psychology, Miriam Erez teaches management and economics, and Eitan Naveh teaches industrial engineering and management at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.