Advances in Team Creativity Research
Summary and Keywords
Although creativity research has historically focused on individuals, with more and more employees working in teams, researchers have started to explore the construct of team creativity. Rather than a comprehensive review, this article takes an in-depth look at the most recent team creativity research. To do this, key themes and trends are discussed, which are then tied back to prior reviews, and new avenues for future research are proposed. Team creativity is a challenging construct because it can be conceptualized as both an outcome and a process, and there is no clear definition of either. When considering team creativity as an outcome, research has employed both complex mediation models as well as a more nuanced examination of moderating variables and constructs that may strengthen or attenuate the effects of relationships related to team creativity. This growing avenue of research recognizes the variability in team creativity that is possible in different circumstances and contexts, and seeks to identify what drives different outcomes. These approaches also acknowledge that team creativity is not guaranteed even when enabling conditions are in place, and that other variables may exert forces in different ways.
The recognition that team creativity is unlikely to be the simple sum of members’ creative processes is becoming very apparent, with researchers examining ways of encouraging, fostering, and sustaining creativity in teams over time. Researchers have also recognized that team creativity is more likely to unfurl over time as a process, rather than a discrete point-in-time event. To this end, the key areas examined are the roles of member diversity and leadership. For diversity, racio-ethno, cultural, gender, age, political orientation, and diversity training have all been examined. For leadership, the focus has shifted away from the more traditional transformational theories and to newer constructs such as humility, ethical and shared leadership, as well as what it means to have an ideational leader who facilitates idea generation. Taken together, what the most recent research tells us is that creativity in teams remains a growing and evolving area of inquiry. While no longer unexplored, much remains to be clarified such as the barriers to effective team creativity, and practices that may help transcend these barriers. A lot of promising areas for future research are highlighted, which will become more important as workplaces pivot toward cultivating team creativity in a systematic and intentional way.
Team creativity research got off to a slow start. Most early work in the creativity arena sought to understand individual differences with regard to traits, characteristics, and behaviors (e.g., Simonton, 1999), and the effects of the context or environment (e.g., Amabile, 1996; Woodman, Sawyer, & Griffin, 1993) on individual creativity. Even the 2004 review of the creativity literature by Shalley, Zhou, and Oldham concluded that creativity research had predominantly been conducted at the individual level and, given the prevalence of teams in organizations, called for more team creativity research. Since then, the field has started to embrace the concept of team creativity and the pace of research has dramatically increased. To this end, several team creativity review chapters have been published (e.g., Gilson, Lim, Litchfield, & Gilson, 2015; Reiter-Palmon, Wigert, & de Vreede, 2012) along with two edited books (Paulus & Nijstad, 2003; Reiter-Palmon, 2018). In addition, a significant portion of the innovation and creativity review published in 2014 by Anderson, Potočnik, and Zhou was dedicated to team-level creativity. Consequently, this article will not again review the extant team creativity literature and look to place old wine into new bottles. Instead, it will take a somewhat different approach by providing a more in-depth look at some of the most recent team creativity research. In order to do this, the article will first set the stage by providing a brief overview of some of the main findings highlighted in prior reviews, and explicitly call out areas that these reviews noted as needing further research. Following this, the remainder of the article will be spent discussing in more detail the team creativity research published after 2015. This portion of the article is organized around the themes and trends that are emerging, and details many of the specific findings from the individual studies. Taken together, the article seeks to answer questions such as: Does this “new” work fill the gaps or answer the questions posed in the earlier reviews? Is the current work being conducted in team creativity setting its own direction and research agenda?
Defining Teams and Team Creativity
Teams are frequently referred to as the building blocks of organizations and deemed necessary if organizations are to achieve performance objectives, survive, succeed, and innovate in today’s fast-paced, complex, international, and technologically driven economy. Not surprisingly, team reviews (see, for example, Cohen & Bailey, 1997; Mathieu, Maynard, Rapp, & Gilson, 2008) are some of the most highly cited articles in management and a mainstay for academics and practitioners trying to sort through the literally thousands of articles and numerous meta-analyses conducted on teams in organizations. While there have been many definitions of teams used over the years, more recently, researchers appear to have converged upon the definition proposed by Kozlowski and Bell (2001, p. 334) which states that teams are:
collectives who exist to perform organizationally relevant tasks, share one or more common goals, interact socially, exhibit task interdependencies, maintain and manage boundaries, and are embedded in an organizational context that sets boundaries, constrains the team, and influences exchanges with other units in the broader entity.
One organizationally relevant task for which teams are often engaged is creativity. Here, it has been both proposed and found that creativity is a critical driver of team effectiveness (e.g., Gilson, Mathieu, Shalley, & Ruddy, 2005; Hackman & Morris, 1975; Taggar, 2002; Tesluk, Farr & Klein, 1997). However, while there is a commonly agreed upon definition of creativity—“the generation of novel and useful ideas, processes, or outcomes” (Amabile, 1996)—there is less consensus surrounding the definition of what is meant by team creativity (Gilson et al., 2015). For example, team creativity has been measured as the sum of the creativity of the individuals within a team (Taggar, 2002), the creativity rating of an outcome produced by a team (e.g., Mannucci, 2017), managerial ratings of the average creativity of a team (e.g., Hu et al., 2018), and as a process or set of processes that teams engage in as a unit to achieve important outcomes (Gilson & Shalley, 2004; Gilson et al., 2005).
In addition to the many definitions of team creativity, ambiguity often surrounds the distinction between team creativity and innovation and in many instances, the terms are used interchangeably. In this article, the focus is on team creativity which is conceptualized as either team engagement in processes, or an outcome produced by a team that is both novel and useful. This definition does not take into account whether the outcome is actually implemented. Creative processes may, or may not result in creative outcomes, and these outcomes may, or may not be implemented by the team or organization. Unlike creativity, innovation requires implementation (Amabile, 1996; Anderson et al., 2014). Although innovation is obviously an end goal in organizations, focusing only on ideas that are easily implementable is unlikely to lead teams toward ideas that ultimately may be more valuable (Alexander & van Knippenberg, 2014). Creativity research explicitly recognizes that it may be valuable to generate and develop ideas that are perceived as less feasible or that the team does not have the resources to implement at the current point in time. Therefore it is argued that, while creativity and innovation are, and always will be, conceptually linked, keeping them separate is also of value. Consequently, this article only includes creativity research.
What the Prior Team Creativity Reviews Tell Us: A Review of Reviews
The prevailing framework used to understand team effectiveness is the input–process–outcome (IPO) framework originally developed by McGrath (1964), and updated by Ilgen and colleagues (2005) to the input–mediator–outcome–input (IMOI) framework that includes both a feedback loop delineating the importance of temporal issues in teams, and observing that all mediators are not necessarily team processes (see Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001). In reviewing the team creativity literature, Reiter-Palmon and colleagues (2012) organized their chapter around the IPO/IMOI frameworks focusing primarily on studies that used creativity and innovation as the outcome variable. On the input side of the equation, their review found that demographic diversity, cognitive style and personality, and team membership change were some of the key constructs that had been examined in the team creativity literature. In their summary of inputs, they highlight that, while it is often lauded that diverse teams should be better able to generate creative idea and engage in creative problem-solving, the research results here are far from conclusive. For example, there is work that finds racial diversity can have positive effects on creativity (O’Reilly, Williams, & Barsade, 1998), while others find no differences between ethnically diverse and homogenous teams (Paletz, Pend, Erez, & Maslach, 2004), and research results further support a negative association between demographic diversity and team creativity (Baer, Oldham, Jacobsohn, & Hollingshead, 2008).
With regard to team inputs, the Reiter-Palmon et al., 2012 review specifically calls for more work to be conducted examining input variables and emphasizing that in particular, work is needed that examines multiple individual difference variables concurrently and takes into account the interaction effects that may exist. With regard to interactions and inputs, the relationship between membership change and tenure is interesting. Specifically, the assertion has long been made that membership change will benefit creativity, but the findings here have not been all that robust (e.g., Choi & Thompson, 2005; Nemeth & Ormiston, 2007). However, when Hirst (2009) examined the interaction between team tenure and membership change he found that for teams with less tenure, membership change was beneficial. In contrast, for teams that had worked to together for longer periods of time, Hirst (2009) observed that membership change was in fact detrimental. Given the limited number of studies in this area, it would appear that membership change is ripe for future investigation.
Moving away from inputs to the process and mediation portion of the framework, Reiter-Palmon and colleagues (2012) differentiate between social and cognitive processes, describing social processes as those that focus on the interactions that occur between team members, often referred to as teamwork variables. Examples of social processes include team collaboration, communication, trust and psychological safety, backup and support, team conflict, cohesion, and efficacy and potency. In contrast, cognitive processes are focused on task work, and cover such constructs as idea generation, creative problem-solving, shared mental models, and team reflexivity. Starting with social processes, it is noteworthy that, while there is a great deal of individual level research on the importance of communication and in particular on the value of external communication, it has mostly been conducted at the individual level of analysis (e.g., Baer, 2010; Perry-Smith, 2006), with only a few exceptions (Howell & Shea, 2006). Finding support for the value of external communications, Howell and Shea report that external communication provides teams with information and helps them garner organizational support which is positively related to both creativity and innovation.
Similarly, while a great deal has been written about the mediating role of psychological safety in the team literature (Mathieu et al., 2008), within the creativity and innovation literature, the relationship appears to be complex. A meta-analysis by Hulsheger, Anderson, and Salgado (2009) reported that, while psychological safety predicts creativity, it was not associated with innovation. Although psychological safety has long been heralded as a key ingredient in team success, its relationship to team creativity is less well understood. This is somewhat surprising given the inherent “risks” associated with being creative and trying new approaches to work in a team setting. Similarly, while cohesion is described as one of the most studied constructs in the team literature (Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006) much less is known about its association with team creativity. For instance, while Sethi, Smith, and Park (2001) found a negative effect for cohesion on team creativity, Jaussi and Dionne (2003) found that, when intrinsically motivated teams had high levels of cohesion, team creativity was higher.
Lastly, the social process that has received the most research attention is conflict and again, the results are mixed (De Dreu, 2006). Here, work by Chen (2006) suggests that the relationship between conflict and team creativity is task dependent, meaning that, while conflict helped creativity in R&D teams, no effects where found for teams working on technology projects. Similarly, others find that the phase in the projects life cycle matters such that creativity early in a project can be helpful, but later in the process its effects are negative (Kratzer, Leenders, & van Engelen, 2006).
With regard to cognitive or more task-focused processes, research on group brainstorming or idea generation has a long history, but very little of it is focused on work teams and much of the research is of debatable relevance to teams in organizational contexts (Sutton & Hargadon, 1996). Even as more research has been conducted on brainstorming, little of it seems to have taken up Sutton and Hargadon’s (1996) fundamental directive to consider its use within teams embedded in the workplace. A newer cognitive area of focus is shared mental models (SMM), with research finding that SMM (Mumford, Feldman, Hein, & Nagao, 2001), like shared goals (Gilson & Shalley, 2004) and a shared vision (Pearce & Ensley, 2004), all have a positive effect on team creativity. However, research here is at best sparse (Reiter-Palmon et al., 2012).
Taking a somewhat different approach to reviewing the team creativity literature, Gilson and colleagues (2015) utilized Rhodes’ Four P’s framework whereby they categorized and identified gaps using person(s), process, press, and products as their delineators. In this framing, person(s) refers to “characteristics and proportions of the people” (Gilson et al., 2015, p. 179). Here, Gilson and colleagues highlight that much of the literature has employed a compositional approach to examine the relationship between member personality, diversity, and team creativity (Baer et al., 2008; Shin & Zhou, 2007; Somech & Drach-Zahavy, 2013). The findings, however, suggest that person characteristics alone are not driving team creativity. Instead, it is the interaction between person (e.g., personality, diversity) and context or process that seems to more consistently indicate team creativity. In contrast, when a compilation approach is taken, there is work suggesting that it is not the team scores that matter, but rather having one individual team member who scores highly, or on the low end of on an attribute, is what affects team creativity (e.g., Murninghan & Conlon, 1991; Robert & Cheung, 2010; Schilpzand, Herold, & Shalley, 2011). In particular, the role of the “less creative” individual (Schilpzand et al., 2011), while counterintuitive, is also very interesting and deserving of more in-depth consideration.
The next P is process which through a creativity lens is the combination of several critical steps that encompasses problem identification, information gathering, idea generation, and finally idea selection. While much has been written about brainstorming as a means to generate ideas (see Litchfield, Gilson, & Gilson, 2015; Paulus, 2000), Gilson and Shalley (2004) focused on the creative process finding that job-required creativity, task interdependence, participative problem-solving, a supportive climate, moderate levels of tenure, and members socializing with one another all resulted in higher levels of engagement in team creative processes. Similarly, work by Gilson and colleagues (2005) found that team creative processes positively affected team performance and in conjunction with standardization had a positive relationship with customer satisfaction. Other processes driving team creativity include shared goals (Mitchel, Nichols, & Boyle, 2009), shared knowledge (Zhang, Tsui, & Wang, 2011), and knowledge utilization (Sung & Choi, 2012).
The hardest P to align with team creativity using its original definition was press. Gilson, Lim, Litchfield, and Gilson (2015) describe press as akin to context since both deal with external or the environment. Moreover, context can further be delineated into the micro-context where both transformational (Shin & Zhou, 2007; Wang & Zhu, 2011; Zhang et al., 2011) and empowering leadership (Zhang, Chen, & Kwan, 2010) along with task and work climate have all been found to significantly affect team creativity (e.g., Gilson & Shalley, 2004; Goncalo & Duguid, 2012; Zhang et al., 2010). Moving to the macro-context, there are several organizational and environmental factors that can have a substantive effect on a team’s ability to be creative. These include, for example, psychological safety, organizational culture and support, and environmental uncertainty (e.g., Sung & Choi, 2012).
What both reviews highlight is that there is a serious gap in the literature when it comes to consideration of how constructs are measured and used. In particular, the team creativity literature needs to consider whether team level constructs are best represented as a mean, the sum of individual team member scores, a measure of dispersion, or even the highest or lowest team member score. While each way of measuring is empirically accurate, the findings and meaning attributable to the results may differ greatly. That is, in some contexts the average score of a team’s creativity may be meaningless if the team’s creative outcome can be achieved by one person producing a single creative idea. At present, there is no strong theory guiding a general choice among operationalizations of team creativity.
Having summarized what we know about team creativity based on prior reviews, it is now time to consider team creativity research published after 2015. Using Web of Science and PsychInfo, searches were performed on the terms “team creativity” and “group creativity” in management and psychology journals. The review of the current research is organized along the themes that were most prevalent in this search.
Exploring the Role of Mediators in Team Creativity Research
Interest in understanding the complexities of creative processes in teams has prompted new research that examines the mechanisms underlying team creativity, typically utilizing analytic approaches such as mediation analysis. When relying on main effect results, it can unclear as to whether unobservable mechanisms may be driving the associations with team creativity. Similarly, prior reviews all called for more complex relationships to be examined. Therefore, it is good to see that the more recent studies almost all test multiple mechanisms in conceptual frameworks, further examine team creativity as the mediator or outcome of more elaborate relationships, and suggest productive efforts to grapple with these dynamics—making for a more complex and rich understanding of team creativity.
In Santos, Uitdewilligen, and Passos’ (2015) study of 161 teams in a management simulation, mediation analyses enable the authors to test a chain of relationships in which team creativity eventually impacts outcomes. They hypothesize and observe that a shared mental model, which refers to a common understanding among team members about relevant task and team aspects of their work, is positively associated with team creativity (and lower group conflict), which in turn is associated with better team effectiveness. Considering this chain of associations together allows the authors to address the practical question—what makes your team more creative than mine?—with an empirical approach that examines team creativity as a mediator of team effectiveness. This analytic approach provides the authors with more latitude to consider links between team creativity and outcomes, which has been a persistent challenge in creativity research. Moreover, the mediation approach also allows the authors to offer guidance on how to practically foster both team creativity and effectiveness through cultivating shared mental models. This more complex approach to modeling supports creativity researchers’ more nuanced enquiries about how team creativity is affected by team practices, and in turn how team creativity shapes outcomes.
Mediation approaches also can uncover the complex sets of relations that lead to team creativity as the outcome of interest (and dependent variable in analyses). Carmeli, Dutton, and Hardin (2015) focused on respect as an engine of ideas, and were able to test whether respectful engagement was associated with team (and individual) creativity, but also why the relationship exists with their test of relational information processing as mediator of the relationship. They tested their model using a survey of part-time undergraduates, replicated the study in an organizational setting, and finally focused on top management teams. In contrast to studies of the determinants of individual creativity, the determinants of team creativity must integrate consideration of relationships and social processes that occur between members to generate creativity. The authors are able to unpack what catalyzes (respectful engagement) and subsequently cultivates (relational information processing) team creativity, which makes for a more nuanced understanding of the impact of interpersonal processes at work.
Lee, Choi, and Kim (2018) illustrate how mediation analyses can help us question old assumptions of how independent variables exert effects on team creativity. In this work, status conflict was positively associated with team creativity, with the new findings of psychological safety as a mediator and cultural diversity as a positive moderator of the relationship. Three studies were used to test hypotheses: a field study of teams and their leader/supervisor ratings of team creativity in Korea, and two laboratory studies using Amazon MTurk and a scenario involving work groups. Psychological safety has been previously accepted as an antecedent to team creativity, yet viewing this construct as a mediator suggests that the presence of psychological safety enables status conflict to result in team creativity (as opposed to less desirable team outcomes). This study suggests that commonly accepted phenomena such as psychological safety may exert effects on team creativity in multiple directions, and these efforts to disentangle the effects add to our understanding of how team creativity is shaped in complex ways.
Moderators that Strengthen or Attenuate Team Creativity Relationships
New advances in mediation approaches are accompanied by more research on moderating variables—that is, constructs that may strengthen or attenuate the effects of relationships related to team creativity. This growing avenue of research recognizes the variability in team creativity that is possible in different circumstances and contexts, and seeks to identify the variables associated with any resulting differences in outcomes. These approaches also nod to the emerging consensus that team creativity is not guaranteed even when enabling conditions are in place, and that other variables may exert forces in different ways.
One dynamic explored by Qu and Liu (2017) is how team members’ shared prosocial motivation can serve as a positive moderating force in the relationship between informational faultlines, external acquisition, internal knowledge integration, and team creativity. The authors set the stage with analyses that illustrate that informational faultlines can hamper team creativity by lowering the capacity for teams to acquire and integrate knowledge, which prevents team creativity. A sample of 66 research and development teams from China participated in the study and reported on measures of external knowledge acquisition, internal knowledge integration, team prosocial motivation, and task complexity, while team supervisors evaluated team creativity. This dysfunctional dynamic is an organizational reality for teams experiencing a lack of cohesion. However, the finding that shared prosocial motivation can overcome this negative flow of social dynamics presents a silver lining for managers and team leaders. Since shared prosocial motivation is an actionable implication of this study, this moderating approach to analysis revealed how certain social proclivities in teams can be addressed through active management.
Leung and Wang’s (2015) theoretical analysis of cultural diversity and team creativity shows through a discussion of several propositions that a negative chain of relationships can lead to lower team creativity: inter-cultural obstacles are the mechanism by which cultural diversity is negatively associated with team creativity. This first hypothesis highlights how negative relationships may be the default dynamic in team creativity unless deliberate attempts to veer these negative dynamics off-course are made. Information and communication technology—both resources easily deployed by teams—are tools that can facilitate the attenuation of this dynamic, ensuring that any potential for culturally diverse teams generating more creative ideas together are realized. A potential issue in both of these studies is that moderation approaches may describe how obstacles to team creativity are dampened, but this process does not always assure that team creativity is promoted. In both studies, less theorizing surrounds why the ideas generated by the teams are expected to have the qualities of creativity, even when roadblocks to accessing and voicing these ideas have been addressed.
Guo and Wang (2017) utilize moderating analyses to identify the impact of team membership change—a growing trend in teamwork—on the relationship between joint decision-making and team creativity. In this work, joint decision-making is described as the deliberate invitation and incorporation of teams’ perspectives in the decision-making process, which the authors note provides opportunities for the fostering of creative ideas. However, this practice is somewhat contingent on members’ knowing the value of their expertise and perspectives, as well as having a working knowledge of how other members contribute value to the team. In modern teamwork structures where membership changes can be attributed to organizational decisions such as shift changes, transfers, and the like, this knowledge can be difficult to accumulate. In this study using survey data from 78 teams in China, team membership change exerted disruptive effects on the positive relationship between joint decision-making and self-rated team creativity. This work’s utilization of a common organizational reality as a moderator is an interesting approach to define how purported relationships may differ under changing circumstances in organizations.
Studying the Process of Team Creativity
Research into individual creativity has generated many insights into the complexity of idea generation that have been applied to understanding the process of team creativity, albeit with the recognition that team creativity over time is unlikely to be the simple sum of members’ creative processes. Indeed, there is growing appreciation for the complexities associated with encouraging, fostering, and sustaining creativity in teams over time, as well as a recognition that team creativity is more likely to unfurl over time as a process, rather than a discrete point-in-time event. Several new studies examining the process of team creativity have seek to address these complex issues.
A critical aspect of the creative process is the influence of time. Both Reiter-Palmon and colleagues (2015) as well as Anderson and colleagues (2014) called for more longitudinal research to understand the influence of creativity over time and to address the limitations of cross sectional studies or methods that rely upon participant recall of past creativity. This has been especially pertinent in the study of team creativity given that much of the engagement in creative practices is likely to span many weeks, months, or years—a reality of the coordination requirements needed to bring together multiple people in busy organizational environments.
Rosing and colleagues (2018) conducted a longitudinal study of 76 engineering project teams in order to describe temporal patterns of creativity and innovation. This longitudinal approach allowed for the researchers to study the complexity and iterative nature of team creative processes, such as surprises, setbacks, and moving back and forth from idea generation (creativity) to implementation. This temporal perspective also allowed for the inclusion of decision-making processes surrounding creativity and innovation, such as displaying ambivalence toward alternative courses of action, and refining ideas. Indeed, the results of the study suggest teams engage in creativity throughout the entire life cycle of projects (rather than just the beginning); however, innovative teams refrain from focusing on implementation in early time frames and unconstrained creativity in early time frames is critical for overall team innovation. This non-linear, iterative process resembles much more of a social, negotiated dynamic than creativity that results from a strictly individual-level process. More studies of the team creative life cycles are needed to further discern between different phases and promote a better understanding of how to manage the different transitions over time to ensure maximal team innovation.
Following a similar theme, Jiang, Zhang, and Zhou (2018) consider the evolution of team creativity, with a focus on how dynamic creative interaction networks change between the formation, growth, maturity, decline, and restart stages. To study the relationship between creative interaction networks and team creativity evolution, 17 creative entrepreneur teams of university students were followed over a period of time, with their projects rated for creativity by judges. Early stages of the team creative process were characterized by frequent interaction, but low-density networks, which changed over time as the team began to evolve. Node and edge interactions also expanded the creativity-relevant skill transfer capacities within teams over time. This and other studies of the team creative process emphasize the role of time in team creativity, and how time can influence the evolution and outcomes of team creativity.
Building on the insight of viewing team creativity as an interpersonal process, Boon, Vangrieken, and Dochy (2016) conceive of team creativity as a series of interaction processes to facilitate team learning that enables the generation of novel and useful ideas. Addressing Anderson and colleagues’ (2014) call for more theory and framework building, the authors theoretically integrate team learning and team creativity to create a new framework for team creativity as a learning process. They tested their theoretically derived questionnaire on a sample of 112 design teams and found that five processes—team creativity efficacy, facilitating team processes, basic team processes, error communication, and co-construction—were key interpersonal processes driving team creativity, which was measured by adapting an individual creativity survey to the team level. The authors posit that both team learning and team creativity investigate very similar phenomena, with the main difference being a focus on learning versus a focus on creative outcomes. Further, the team creativity framework emphasizes the importance of the newness and novelty of the outcomes resulting from the team’s work, which is not always the case with learning. Similar to Rosing and colleagues’ (2018) article that nods to the possibility of many types of distinctions in team creativity (e.g., team idea generation, evaluation, championing, implementation), Boon and colleagues (2016) suggest that researchers face choices whether to distinguish team creativity from adjacent concepts like team learning, or continue to specify important distinctions between concepts in the continued efforts to build frameworks and theory around team creativity.
Men, Fong, Luo, Zhong, and Huo (2017) investigate the role of absorptive capacity and knowledge integration—two concepts related to learning—on promoting team creativity in turbulent environments. The authors describe these two concepts as processes that enable teams to utilize their resources to achieve their collective goals. Survey data was collected from 96 Chinese work teams, with team creativity ratings from supervisors. The authors emphasize external knowledge search (from customers, suppliers, competitors, etc.) as an important process that teams should engage in, as well as promote positive internal team processes, especially when the external environment is dynamic and competitive.
Mannucci (2017) considers another less-studied aspect of the team creativity process in his study Drawing Snow White and Animating Buzz Lightyear: Technological Toolkit Characteristics and Creativity in Cross-Disciplinary Teams. Technological toolkits, which comprise the set of technological tools the team can draw upon to construct its actions, are pervasive in cross-disciplinary teams yet understudied in the context of team creativity. Examining the role of technological toolkits in the Hollywood animation industry, a knowledge-intensive setting, Mannucci discovers that team creativity, defined as the overall creativity of movies as rated by two industry experts, is influenced by the size and field diffusion of the team toolkit, with size having a curvilinear relationship with team creativity, and diffusion having a positive relationship. These results have several implications for different fields, including creativity, and point to how toolkits can foster the essential process of overcoming disciplinary barriers and enabling cross-fertilization of perspectives and knowledge to ensure creative outcomes. The study also considers the importance of the external field as an audience interpreting the outcomes of the team’s creative process: The toolkit should not be so unique that external knowledge exchange is too difficult, nor such that the field cannot understand or recognize the team’s creativity. This and other works continue to push our understanding of the variety of inputs that need to be considered when studying creative teams in industries where the field, technology, and ensuring cross-disciplinary collaboration are key to successful creative outcomes.
Binyamin and Carmeli (2017) also examine how structuring human resource processes that support teams (example practices include strategic alignment with organizational vision and engaging line managers in designing HR policies and decision-making) may enhance team creativity by promoting team human and social capital. Their sample consisted of 87 teams working in high-technology organizations with supervisors assessing team creativity via survey. The intentional structuring of the team process to realize members’ creative potential speaks to the actions teams can take to foster a process conducive to team creativity.
Finally, Kay, Proudfoot, Larrick, and Chen (2018) question the assumption that creative teams are viewed as a singular entity with their study, There’s No Team in I: How Observers Perceive Individual Creativity in a Team Setting. They acknowledge that, in team creative processes, observers may still attribute creative ability to focal actors who work as part of a creative team and discount the group contributions. In a series of experimental studies where a target member is visually depicted either alone or with a team, they suggest that the fundamental attribution error—systematically discounting the contribution of the group when assisting the creative ability of a single group representative—is a consistent feature of evaluation of creative teams. The authors discuss the potential harm to organizations of over attributing individual creative ability and describe the tensions between singling out leaders versus fostering feelings of unfairness and resentment. By focusing on this phenomenon of attribution errors, the authors provide insights about the inferences people make when judging creativity in teams—an important nuance when considering creativity at the team’s level of analysis as opposed to the individual level of analysis.
Diversity and Team Creativity
As described by Reiter-Palmon et al. (2012) and Gilson et al. (2015), the assumption that teams composed of diverse individuals will be creative has found mixed empirical support in the extant literature. In Diversity and Team Creativity: Exploring Underlying Mechanisms, Salazar, Feitosa, Salas, and Marcus (2017) built on previous studies’ mixed results linking diversity and team creativity by examining the use of interventions that emphasize commonality, such as a superordinate team identity. They examine how the presence of racio-ethnic subgroup diversity (consisting of racially diverse teams of undergraduates) combined with superordinate identity salience fosters a feeling of a common “we,” which in turn supports the generation of novel ideas by the team (it did not impact usefulness of ideas). This study advances our understanding of why the latent creative potential in racio-ethnic groups is not always realized, and suggests that interventions that cultivate a superordinate identity can help in realizing this potential. While this research starts to uncover relationships between salient racio-ethnic subgroup differences and aspects of team creativity (idea novelty), more research is needed to unveil the process by which this diversity affects creative outcomes, for example information exchange, elaboration, and integration.
In A Multilevel Model of Team Cultural Diversity and Creativity: The Role of Climate for Inclusion, Li, Lin, Tien, and Chen (2015) identify another intervention that can strengthen the relationship between cultural diversity and team creativity, and potentially overcome its negative effects. In a study of 57 multicultural work teams, with team creativity measured via supervisor ratings, they discover that a climate for inclusion plays a critical role in helping culturally diverse teams and their members capitalize on the potential creative benefits of team diversity that are not always realized. Their model suggests that climate for inclusion benefits both individual creativity (through employee information elaboration) and team creativity (through team information exchange). As such, this article addresses some of the questions raised from the previous work that seeks to understand how cultural diversity can positively affect team creativity.
Intervention also figures in the work of Homan, Buengeler, Eckhoff, Van Ginkel, and Voelpel (2015), who examine how diversity training as an act of active diversity management can help or harm teams. Undergraduates were sorted into 48 teams (with a subset watching a diversity training video) and tasked with developing creative marketing products that were independently rated for levels of creativity. The findings point to the important role of experienced team efficacy of the team members: teams with less positive diversity beliefs had increased creative performance when the team’s nationality diversity was high, but reduced creativity when the team’s nationality diversity was low. Training effects were contingent upon the team’s beliefs in the benefits of diversity: When teams have less positive diversity beliefs, training enables them to build a reservoir of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) that will help them in dealing with nationality diversity. Teams with more positive diversity beliefs are already better able to utilize nationality diversity, which points to a contingency approach when applying interventions to promote creative outcomes in diverse teams.
In Divergent and Convergent Group Creativity in an Asynchronous Online Environment, Coursey, Williams, Kenworthy, Paulus, and Doboli (2018) consider multiple types of group diversity: related to ethnicity, gender, age, and political orientation. They studied an electronic discussion board over a period of four weeks, where assigned student groups engaged in an asynchronous fashion on different topics. Political orientation diversity was the only type of diversity that was positively associated with the increased replies and novelty of ideas generated by the group, rated by external coders. An important design feature of this study was that participants were not made aware of the diversity inherent in their group, and the authors conclude that political or value-based diversity has the potential for creative solutions if the other participants’ political or value-based identities are not made salient. The authors surmise that contrasting opinions have the potential to attain productive and creative outcomes, but that special attention to creating a cooperative context of open-mindedness and constructive sharing of views is necessary to achieve this potential. The study does not shed light on why the other types of diversity were not significantly associated with creativity, but rather considers other more attitudinal and value-based forms of diversity that are likely to emerge in team settings at work.
Finally, other kinds of diversity also were considered in work by Blazhenkova and Kozhevnikov (2016) who study adolescent teams of different specializations (visual artists, scientists, and humanities) during a complex creative task. These teams’ creative products (final drawings) were evaluated by experts from different professional domains. Teams consisting of all different specializations were evaluated as highest on artistic quality, but lowest on concept clarity. The authors subsequently suggest links between their findings and the growing use of heterogeneous, interdisciplinary teams.
Advancing the Discussion on Leadership and Creativity
Notable advances have been made on topics of leadership and team creativity. Few prior studies focused on the role of the leader in fostering team creativity, despite the potential of a leader to overcome team process barriers to enable creative outcomes. However, past work highlights how team processes that converge toward conformity and consensus may act against efforts to generate creative ideas, as the novelty aspect of ideas may pose tensions to team consensus building processes. Although evidence has been mixed on the best leadership style conducive to team creativity, transformational and visionary styles of leadership have dominated past research. Working within this established emphasis, Boies, Fiset, and Gill (2015) identified the mechanisms that underlie the link between transformational leadership and team creativity in their experimental study that manipulated leadership style assigned to 44 teams of undergraduates, with creativity evaluated by external judges. The specific aspects of a transformational style that they identified—inspirational motivation—were both related to fostering team communication and trust in teammates, which led to more creative team outcomes and better team performance.
Research has notably moved on to other styles of leadership that may be more directly relevant to the task of generating novel and useful ideas in teams. Carmeli and colleagues (2015) tested a leadership style that directly facilitated the generation of ideas (“ideational leadership”) on the resulting team creativity exploratory behaviors, in top management teams, with team creativity evaluated by the CEO in a survey. Other kinds of characteristics have emerged, too, such as leader humility and ethical styles of leadership. Hu and colleagues’ (2018) study of leader humility and team creativity in Chinese work teams in the information technology industry tested psychological safety and team information sharing as mediators, an approach that takes the perspective that setting conditions for voice and sharing information collectively are key to team creativity (rated by team leaders). In contrast to previous studies of transformational leader styles, leaders exhibiting team humility must show a willingness to accept mistakes and share limitations, as well as demonstrate an openness to integrating team members’ divergent ideas. The authors note that the study’s setting of China may have influenced the extent to which employees and leaders value humility, which aligns with historic cultural Confucian values of interpersonal harmony. This study addresses Anderson and colleagues’ (2014) call for more research on leadership and team creativity where leaders create conducive climates for experimentation, risk taking, and learning from mistakes.
Ethical leadership was another style of leader behavior examined by both Mo, Ling, and Xie (2017) and Tu, Lu, and Guo (2018). Tu and colleagues (2018) note that ethical leaders establish a work environment characterized by integrity and predictability, that similar to leader humility, would reduce social risks associated with generating creative ideas in the team. Psychological safety is again offered as a mediator of aspects of team creative performance: team creativity (self-rated by teams in a survey), average team member creativity, and dispersion of creativity. Findings of the study with knowledge work teams in China showed a positive association and mediation for the first two forms of creativity, as well as a moderator effect for supervisor support. Mo and colleagues (2017) test the possibility that the environment of ethics and integrity that a leader set can be dampened by team faultlines, suggesting that in teams there are still opposing member-led dynamics that must be actively managed to enable creative outcomes.
Gu, Chen, Huang, Liu, and Huang (2018) questioned if shared leadership, leader behaviors shared by constituent team members (rather than a single leader), could facilitate team creativity in teams which consisted of diverse members from different organizations, an increasingly popular approach to innovation development. In a sample of 53 inter-organizational teams drawn from multiple industries in China, team members self-reported shared leadership, knowledge sharing, task interdependence, and individual creativity, while supervisors rated team creativity. Employing a multilevel modeling approach, the authors discovered that shared leadership was positively associated with individual- and team-level creativity (mediated by knowledge sharing), and that task interdependence moderated the relationships between shared leadership and knowledge sharing, as well as knowledge sharing and team creativity. This study highlights that shared leadership can facilitate several processes helpful to promoting team creativity, even when team members are geographically dispersed and belong to different organizations.
Across all studies of leadership and creativity, it is noteworthy how scholars have adopted concepts most commonly associated with the voice literature (e.g., psychological safety) as key to generating creative ideas in teams. As work continues in this vein, it would be important to consider if promoting voice and promoting voice with creative content are distinct enough to warrant more theorizing. The impact of different cultural views of leadership also is notable in these studies, with the majority of research being conducted in China, where national values and assumptions about leadership may shape how leaders can successfully function in facilitating team creativity. This stream of research appears to invite new avenues of thought while simultaneously opening many new questions for future research.
A New Context for Creativity Research
Much of what has been published since 2015 has taken a more nuanced and fine-grained approach to the examination of team creativity. While this approach has helped move our understanding of team creativity forward, and enabled us to group many studies together, we did find one study that did not fit into any of the aforementioned categories, but is worthy of mention here. Kiratli, Rozemeijer , Hilken, de Ruyter, and de Jong (2016) studied team creativity in a context atypical for creativity research and a task, while also atypical in creativity research, that reflects the variety of ways that the team creativity concept can be adapted to be relevant within a broad range of contexts. Specifically, this study on creative sourcing strategies, utilizing many well-established methods applies them to the specific task of sourcing products for the purposes of achieving distinctive competitive advantage. This linkage between creativity and competitive advantage is a new twist. As other industries see the value of examining how team creativity operates in their setting to promote better team performance, research like this is very likely to become more prevalent.
Starting with the good news, team creativity remains an area that is attracting quality research attention and the work is being published in many highly regarded journals. The not-so-good news is that there is still very little consensus on the definition of team creativity along with how it should be measured. The really bad news is that the field does not seem to be making strides to resolve this discrepancy. But, while this lack of consensus can certainly be perceived as a negative, there is also a silver lining or a real opportunity here. This detailed review of the most current research reveals that, while there has been some coalescing around themes, there clearly remain a number of gaps and research opportunities for scholars interested in furthering our understating of how teams engage in creative processes and what makes the outcomes that teams produce creative.
First, there is a clear need for theory that can help synthesize, unite, and guide future research on team creativity. Theory is needed to help clarify and conceptually understand the empirical tests of multiple variables that all appear to be related to team creativity, even though there is no agreement on what this is! Currently, multiple other theoretical lenses are applied to the domain (i.e., individual creativity, general team performance models), but are these the best ways to think about team creativity? For example, without a theory to guide the work there are several constructs that often appear as independent variables, moderators, mediators, and sometimes even the dependent variable. Team creative processes and psychological safety are some of the prime examples here. For example, in 2004, Gilson and Shalley used team creative processes as their dependent variable, finding a number of team level antecedents that result in higher engagement in team creative processes. Gilson and colleagues (2005) positioned team creative processes as an input variable that drives team performance and customer satisfaction. Similarly, Lee and colleagues (2018) and Tu and colleagues (2018) both use psychological safety as a mediator whereas earlier work primarily considered it as a contextual main effect or input variable (see reviews by Gilson et al., 2015; Reiter-Palmon et al., 2012 for examples). In addition, constructs such as team creativity, team voice, and team learning are all being used somewhat interchangeably. Are they all the same, or similar? For instance, is it safe to say that learning is a proxy for becoming more creative? Moving forward, how should constructs be distinguished and the relationships between them depicted in this literature? Strong theory will go a long way here.
Second, how should we measure team creativity? Within the broader creativity literature this is not a new argument. One question that is frequently asked is whether supervisors are the best individuals to rate a team (or an individual) as creative. This question comes to the fore as different formations of teams become more common in workplaces, e.g., self-managed, temporary, leaderless teams that are increasingly popular in industries such as healthcare and manufacturing. Many of the key dynamics of creative teaming are uniquely observed from within the team, and especially so within these “supervisor-less” configurations. Furthermore, if expressing creativity to a supervisor is potentially risky, for example, it may be viewed as wasting time and taking away from core tasks, teams may be motivated to hide their creativity from supervisors. Thus, it seems especially relevant to consider if supervisors are the best individuals positioned to rate a team as creative. Another measurement issue that arises is the validity of relying on undergraduate laboratory tests to extrapolate to team dynamics in organizations. The ability to control experimental conditions is alluring for research purposes, but for team creativity, the richness of the organizational environment, external task pressures, and work dynamics may be inextricably related to the ability of work teams to be creative so isolating research from the organizational context may be detrimental to our understanding. In addition, undergraduate aged research participants are unlikely to be able to fully feign and relate to the interpersonal dynamics and pressures associated with working in organizational teams. On a related note, research setting matters, and the reviewed articles were commonly set in universities or specifically, within China, which may limit our ability to generalize to other organizations and countries. To continue to build scholarship in this area, and compile actionable insights from the research, it will be important to continue to consider research setting and participants in future studies.
This review also highlighted the need to understand the nature of “individualness” and “teamness” as it relates to team creativity, especially as it pertains to the concepts of differentiation and fit/optimal distinctiveness. Do individuals coalesce into teams through processes? How do teams manage individuality within their ranks? How do teams make use of individual creative potential? What is the role of the individual and what is the role of team process? Disentangling the interactions between teams and the individuals they comprise is essential for scholarship in this area, as it has largely been a black box with many assumptions. For example, some studies in this review aggregated responses from individual team creativity instruments to derive their team creativity measure; which implicitly suggests that team creativity is the aggregation of individual creativity, whereas others intentionally measured team creativity at the team level of analysis. This creates a research area ripe for future exploration: how to unpack these various levels (individual, team, and organizational) as they relate to the study of team creativity.
Finally, the review also emphasizes something that has been long known: team creativity is challenging, with potentially many barriers that make it so. While these interpersonal and organizational barriers are often described post-study in discussion, they are rarely explicitly studied and theorized about. More clarity is required around the barriers to effective team creativity and the practices to transcend these barriers.
This article highlighted a lot of promising areas for future research which will become more important as workplaces pivot toward cultivating team creativity in a systematic and intentional way. It serves as an important milestone and path forward in this process.
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