Scatterbrains: How Does Your Team Think As A Creative Unit?

Check your assumptions at the innovation door.

Scatterbrains: How Does Your Team Think As A Creative Unit?

Where’s  your dot?  Building teams that think differently and work better.

I was at a dinner party recently and overheard a couple bemoaning their frustration in working together to complete a bathroom redecoration. “He wants me to pick out drawer knobs, but I haven’t decided on fixtures yet,” complained the woman. “I want to keep my options open until I see how the paint and the countertops work.”

“We’re going to be at this until Christmas,” rejoined her partner. “We’re at the store – why can’t she just decide on everything and get it over with, so we can finish the job.”

As a researcher and trainer in the area of creative problem solving, I had to smile to myself. It was a classic teamwork conundrum – one that is played out in bathrooms, meeting rooms and around board tables everywhere. 

We all have a style for solving problems, but few of us understand even our own styles, let alone those of our partners or co-workers. It leads us to prioritize some stages of a problem-solving process – like lingering over our options – while becoming frustrated with our teammates’ desire to get to the hands-on stage of the job. We don’t recognize or value the importance of working through a creative problem solving process in a systematic way that allows each stage to be thoroughly explored and successfully resolved before moving on to the next stage.

In the business context, this is a massive problem that stalls key projects, inhibits creativity, and often ultimately results in unsuccessful initiatives. Because we don’t understand the problem solving styles, or respect the importance of the process, we don’t design teams to succeed.

Rather, we throw together a collection of subject matter experts — someone who knows tiles, someone who is good with colours and a plumbing expert – and expect the perfect bathroom to result. But without a plan to create a team skilled in and capable of taking a methodical approach to problem solving, we often end up with an inferior result. Sometimes the team lingers indecisively in the fixture aisle, unable to move out of the planning stage. Other times, the team rushes to begin hanging mirrors and towel racks without taking time to consider the paint colour.

Successful teams take a deliberate approach to problem solving that moves methodically through a well-understood process. They are made up of people who bring particular enthusiasm for each stage of the process, as well as an understanding of the different styles their teammates bring to the table. In a scatter diagram, they know where their dots are.

Written for anyone who has experienced the frustration of ineffective teamwork, this paper will allow you to determine your problem solving style and familiarize you with the process of creative problem solving. It will teach you to apply a critical eye to team composition to ensure a range of content skills are balanced with a range of problem solving styles. With a balanced team – one with dots spread across the scatter diagram – innovative solutions to your most challenging problems will be in your grasp.

Innovation is a Process

In today’s rapidly changing economic environment, innovation is often essential to survival. The ability to quickly and proactively adapt products and services provides organizations with competitive advantage in an increasingly challenging market. Success demands integrating knowledge across many disciplines, collaborating with diverse groups of people, and managing projects to completion. But while understanding the need for innovation is widespread, understanding how to create innovation is not.

Innovation is a problem solving process that begins when you recognize a challenge your customers are facing. It continues through the design of a breakthrough solution for meeting that challenge. And it ends when you provide your solution. With the right attitudes and skills, and applying an effective process, anyone can create innovative results. When understood and applied in a team setting, consistently good results can replace the stalled efforts and unsuccessful products that often result from team work.

Innovation is a four-stage process that begins with generating opportunities or problems to solve. Those problems spark the next stage which is conceptualization, or defining the problem and brainstorming ideas for addressing it. The third step, optimization, is to take those abstract ideas and turn them into practical solutions and plans. That sets up for the next step, which is implementation, or putting the new solution into action. Notice that innovative is a circular and ongoing process, with today’s solutions leading to tomorrow’s problems.

Creative performance requires a balance of these four steps, each undertaken in a thoughtful, considered and complete way. Each step involves different mindsets and activities, so it is not surprising that people prefer different stages of the process. That preference – or what we call an innovation style – can be measured using the Basadur Profile.

We are all different in how we learn, comprehend and gain knowledge. Science has identified two opposite ways in which people learn, or gain their knowledge. One way is by experiencing: plunging right in and “getting your hands dirty”. All of a sudden someone exclaims, “Aha! I get it!” The opposite way is by thinking: not getting involved but standing back, and figuring it out analytically (“putting the dots together”). Most of us will favor one way or the other, either by a little or a lot.

 Next, no matter how we learn, we’re also different in how we use our knowledge. On the right hand side of the illustration, some people prefer creating options or ideas with their knowledge – we call this ideation. Those people will enjoy generating new opportunities, new problems, new facts and, new ideas. On the left side of the illustration, some people love to use their knowledge to evaluate – to judge things, to understand better and make better choices. All of us are somewhere along that horizontal continuum.

This results in four combinations, which we call innovation styles. Going around the circle clockwise, you have: Generators, Conceptualizers, Optimizers and Implementers. Our profile helps people identify what style – or blend of styles – they prefer.

Generators prefer the earliest steps, involving problem finding and fact finding. They love looking for new problems, opportunities and challenges, and often see connections that others miss. They prefer to create new options rather than evaluate or dismiss possibilities. Everything they see is relevant, and may lead them to find new problems, trends or opportunities. They enjoy ambiguity and are hard to pin down. They delight in juggling many new projects simultaneously. Every solution they explore suggests several new problems to be solved.

When contributing to a team, generators are helpful in creating options in the form of new possibilities — new problems that might be solved and new opportunities that might be capitalized upon. They keep a team refreshed, so that as problems are solved, new ones emerge on the horizon for further innovation.

Conceptualizers

Conceptualizers like problem definition and the big picture. They need to clearly understand what they’re doing before they move forward, and may delineate a problem in a way in that is different from how it was first understood. They enjoy fledgling ideas that can be evaluated, and like making sense of scattered information. 

In a team role, conceptualizers are “big picture” thinkers who are good at effectively defining problems, or innovation challenges. They tend to be naturally good at defining high level strategies to solve complex problems. Research reveals a bias for more senior managers in corporations to lean toward conceptualizer style compared to more junior employees to lean towards implementation.

Optimizers

Optimizers see the value in practical solutions to well-defined problems. They love to find a critical few factors and evaluate the options but don’t see much value in dreaming about wild ideas or imagining different problems. They are good at converting abstract ideas and alternatives into practical solutions and plans. They like to hone in, narrow down and eliminate ambiguity. 

When part of a team, optimizers are the action planners, metrics and scorecard people who are good at creating tangible action plans with milestones and measurable results.

Implementers

For Implementers, action is the name of the game. They like to get things moving, and figure they’ll adapt to changing circumstances and find the best way forward through trial and error. While sometimes viewed as enthusiastic, they can also be seen as a little pushy or impatient.

When contributing to a team, implementers ensure that action is actually taken. They are effective in driving results in the real world by adapting to unforeseen circumstances that might be missed in more theoretical planning or abstract models of how things “should” work. Their bias toward experience and hands-on learning gives them insight into how things work in the real world, which they apply to make well crafted plans even better. 

Teamwork: Getting the Right Mix

Given the differences between the four styles, challenges can arise when team members don’t understand the value each brings to a problem solving activity. However, all four styles are necessary for successful innovation. A great idea that isn’t well-developed and executed goes nowhere. A common idea that’s well executed has a limited window for growth. But few people are equally skilled or comfortable with all the stages of problem-solving. A team with a good balance of members who are comfortable and skilled generators, conceptualizers, optimizers and implementers will be a more creative team with potential for not only a breakthrough idea, but also solid execution. 

Successful teams take a deliberate approach to problem solving that moves methodically through a well-understood process. They are made up of people who bring particular enthusiasm for each stage of the process, as well as an understanding of the different styles their teammates bring to the table.

No single style is any more ‘creative’ than any other. All four stages of the process require creativity of different kinds and contribute uniquely to the overall innovative process and innovative results. Skills are needed to execute all stages, and training can improve skill levels.

By capitalizing on each individual’s preferences and tapping resources in all four styles, teams can cycle skillfully through the full innovation process. Skillful synchronization of the preferred creative styles and activities of interdepartmental and interdisciplinary team members is particularly important.

The stories and scatter diagrams below highlight the impact problem solving styles can have on a team’s effectiveness, and how a variety of strategies can be used to improve team balance and increase innovative output.

The dots on this scatter diagram represent individuals on a team that is working on a big bank’s initiative to establish new financial products quickly. Operating in a very competitive environment, the bank is looking to develop a range of new offerings to differentiate itself from others in the market. But it is experiencing a high percentage of failures as it introduces those products.

When the team discussed the scatter diagram, it was revealed that the group often developed new products by rushing directly from an initial suggestion into enthusiastic implementation. Powerful implementers on the team were inclined to quickly seize on opportunities and problems generated in the first quadrant and rush the team into action. That problem was magnified by the limited understanding the team had of the problem solving process.

With training in the process and a better understanding of the necessary steps, the group would be more inclined to follow the circle in a clockwise way and spend the appropriate time on conceptualization and optimization. This would result in better definition and conceptualization of new possibilities, which could then be well-designed and tested through the optimization stage prior to heading to market.

A large global engineering company serving the airline and aerospace industries is struggling to implement an aggressive new growth strategy that is dependent on developing new products and entering new markets.

During training sessions to familiarize employees with the innovation process, the Profile was administered to a large number of employees. Most managers and professionals were found to be very strongly oriented toward the optimization and implementation styles. This is an absolutely typical training group from the company.

Can we see what’s missing here?  Not one generator. A strong organizational culture favouring analysis and quick fixes to short-term efficiency problems is reflected in the company’s motto: “We’re on it.” That attitude rewards implementers, whose efforts can be seen in hands-on actions.  But there’s not enough incentive in this company for people with strength in the generator style.

To develop a larger number of new projects, the company instituted an extensive training program to develop awareness of and skills in generation and conceptualization. It also created a corporate program that provided significant financial incentives for all business units to propose new projects for developing new products and markets.

A new managing director of a stagnant medium-sized European manufacturing company has been hired specifically to help the company find a badly-needed breakthrough product and bring it to market. He assembles a team that, in very little time, develops an exciting new product concept. But the team subsequently grinds to a standstill. Members fail to attend meetings regularly, with several suggesting nothing important remained to be done.

The profile is administered to all team members. Analysis shows that all the team members intuitively selected by the managing director are either generators or conceptualizers, resulting in a team that is strongly biased towards utilizing knowledge for ideation, making it strong for developing new ideas. But the team lacks optimizers and implementers. The managing director realizes he needs to strengthen the team’s orientation towards utilizing knowledge for evaluation, in order to bring the new product concept to market.

When change starts and then stalls, the reason may be an incomplete team. Ambitious leaders need to anticipate this, and build the best possible teams to move innovative thinking all the way into effective implementation.

This recent example comes from the top management team of a very good manufacturing company that is making a lot of money despite some very real quality problems. They’re experiencing a lot of defects, a lot of re-work, waste and processes that are makeshift. Rather than addressing underlying procedural problems, the company typically applies a band-aid solution to the challenge at hand. As a result, there’s a lot of duplication, people aren’t really helping each other and there’s not much accountability. While very proud of their ability to fix things on the fly, people don’t stop to fix the processes responsible for creating the problems in the first place.

This chart represents the problem solving preferences of the 14 people leading the company. Collectively, they are very good at overcoming quality defects and making things happen, but you can see there is only one person on the team who is interested in optimization. This graph helps the company recognize that it isn’t paying enough time and attention to optimizing its processes and quality, which would allow it to lower costs and improve profitability.

The Takeaway

So what do we need to understand about teamwork and innovation? Most importantly, understand that innovation is a process, not an event. No one would expect to efficiently build a high-quality car by dumping the pieces on a table in front of a team with the hope that spontaneous impulse would lead them to assemble a working vehicle. But that’s the approach we often take with innovation. With little structure, and a jumble of insights, ideas, facts and inclinations, we hope teams will deliver market-changing products and solutions. When we train people to understand and adhere to a process that methodically discovers new problems and  opportunities, defines problems, collects facts, evaluates options and refines implementation, we increase the likelihood of building tomorrow’s Ferrari.

And just as the Ferrari needs someone to blue-sky the design and someone to make sure the wheels are installed, recognize the value of all problem solving styles in the ultimate creation of an innovation answer. Know where your dot lies, and be confident in your own creative style. All four styles are essential to the process, so if you’re different from somebody else, that’s a good thing. Recognize the importance of the different styles other people bring and understand that they can help you.

Cognitive diversity is a big competitive edge. It’s not what you know, but how you know it. While teams are often designed with a diversity of subject matter experts, it’s equally important to ensure they contain problem solving diversity. Effective teams leverage both elements of cognitive diversity. Team problems can be diagnosed. Find out what is missing to build a team with the right blend of different styles and well-developed problem solving skills.

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