Love that teamwork buzz

The light bulb might be his best-known invention, but Thomas Edison’s biggest contribution to society may well be the innovation team. One of history’s most prolific inventors, Edison was far from a lone operator. Financial success from early ventures enabled him to establish the now-famous research laboratory at Menlo Park where he and his team worked on new ideas and improvements to existing concepts. His model of collaboration – harnessing the energies of a diverse group of intelligent, curious people – underpins most successful innovation efforts today. The high premium on innovative teamwork is driving increasing research into how people best work together, from managing conflict in multicultural teams to getting highly creative groups to actually produce something. As Scott Belsky says in Making Ideas Happen, “The wise creative leader understands that idea generation is a wild animal that requires a stolid trainer to tame excitement with a healthy dose of skepticism”. Harry West, the CEO of global design and innovation firm, Continuum, says they are always looking for ways to innovate how they innovate, including how to run teams. “Three refinements to our team approach are making a difference,” he says, “actively managing creative friction, making project rooms the focal point of the work environment, and pushing as much creativity into commercialisation as into conceptualisation.” Continuum is particularly strong on removing communication barriers. “People communicate in different ways,” West says. “Once you understand why people are different, you can laugh about it — rather than get frustrated — and it becomes a way for the team to bond, rather than a reason for breakdown.” In a fascinating project, a team at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory studied teams in environments ranging from call centres to post-operative hospital wards to see what made them click. “We noticed we could sense a buzz in a team even if we didn’t understand what the members were talking about,” explains project leader Alex “Sandy Pentland. The study identified highly consistent patterns of communication – tone of voice, body language – that are associated with productive teams, regardless of the nature of their work. The key finding: those patterns are what matter most – more than skill, intelligence, and other factors combined. A clearly excited Pentland adds: “We believe we can vastly improve long-distance work and cross-cultural teams, which are so crucial in the global economy, by learning their patterns and adjusting them.”

 

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