Want Innovation? Diversify Thinking

An organization’s ability to innovate is paramount when vying to stay competitive. While managers are encouraged to put together innovative teams with a diversity of task-relevant experts, new research in team psychology shows that how employees think is as important to innovation as the knowledge they bring to the table. Their cognitive styles can be measured with psychometric tests similar to those used to assess individual personality.

Creating a strong innovation team typically is dependent on cross-boundary teams. Assembling experts in each area of a business — from marketing and accounting to supply chain — provides a wealth of experience, which enables out-of-the-box thinking.

But for truly optimal performance, managers also should consider a team’s diversity of thinking — or the different ways in which individual team members process information, according to the 2012 study, “Deep-Level Team Composition and Innovation: The Mediating Roles of Psychological Safety and Cooperative Learning,” published in Group and Organization Management.

In the study, management researchers focused on psychological makeup rather than knowledge base. Eighty-three innovation teams working on product, process and service innovation that represented a range of industries were analyzed, with measures of how team members — along with others outside the teams — perceived success when it came to innovative behaviors: idea generation, idea realization and team member satisfaction.

The findings demonstrated that managers seeking optimal performance must pay particular attention to the cognitive style composition of innovation teams. Why? Because the pooled cognitive styles of members appear to influence team innovation above and beyond the functional variety represented by the team.

In other words, thinking styles shape a team’s interpersonal dynamics, which in turn affect innovation.

The study also focused on the link between deep-level team composition and innovation. Deep-level team composition refers to the diversity in employee characteristics that are not easy to observe; they become noticeable only through group interactions. Prior published research on team composition and performance has shown these characteristics affect both how teams work and whether they are successful in achieving their goal.

The findings from the Deep-Level Team Composition and Innovation study showed that having more sequential, analytical thinkers on a team decreased team innovation by inhibiting psychological safety. Meanwhile, holistic, connective thinkers improved team innovation by facilitating cooperative learning among members — leading to greater likelihood of team success. Even when controlling for team tenure, size and functional variety, members’ pooled cognitions are reliable predictors of innovation.

The findings are noteworthy because they show that the relationship between team members’ cognitive styles and team innovation is independent from the relationship between the team’s knowledge variety and innovation. While it is clearly important for managers to consider functional knowledge, thinking styles are just as critical and should be considered an important area of investigation in efforts to unpack the team composition.

Hence, assessment tools for measuring cognitive styles need to be made available to those with the responsibility of staffing teams. With such tools, this critical dimension of individual difference can be taken into account when team composition questions emerge.

Increasing a team’s pooled connective thinking can be achieved by using brain-based measures of cognitive styles to identify connective thinkers. Other strategies to encourage connective thinking may include training team members in divergent thinking, analogizing, abstracting and promoting role-play techniques such as structured debates.

To discourage sequential thinking — that is, the preference for following existing sets of logical, sequential routines when resolving problems — managers may resort to limiting the number of sequential thinkers on a team while keeping in mind that aspects of sequential thinking may be useful in producing innovation. Additional strategies include de-emphasizing preciseness and exactness when requesting intermediary team results and reports.

Clearly, cognitive styles affect the innovative capabilities and outputs of a team. And while the focus on team development is typically placed on diversifying expertise related to tasks that will bring about success, this study encourages managers to focus team development efforts on the consideration of cognitive styles.

A diverse pool of cognitive styles will enhance team innovation beyond the level that would be solely achieved when evaluating individual member contributions. Hence, cognitive styles should be considered an important area of investigation, distinct from the work on informational diversity, in further efforts to unpack the team composition.

Corinne Post is assistant professor in the department of management at Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com