A Group Approach to Team Creativity; The case of new product development teams

Geert Vissers, Ben Dankbaar Nijmegen Business School, University of Nijmegen, Netherlands Paper prepared for IIT-symposium ‘Collaborating across professional boundaries: From education to practice’ Chicago, Nov. 2-3, 2000

Are new products accomplished by highly creative individuals, or by creative teams? This paper will start from the assumption that some creative team achievements cannot be reduced to the work of separate team members. Does this assumption mean that some major strands of research on creativity become irrelevant to the study of new product development, as new products are often developed by teams. And has research on group creativity grown to the extent that it can be used as a vantage point for studying new product development? The present paper will discuss these questions, arguing that recent studies suggesting a relation between group diversity and group creativity do offer some notable insights, but also arguing that a paradox seems to emerge: The same requirement of ‘shared views’ that is supposed to be for team functioning may be harmful for creativity. Suggestions are made to deal with this paradox, in particular Fiol’s proposal to open up the concept of consensus, and an argument that starts from Allen’s observation that engineers integrate ‘messages’ rather than generating completely new ideas. After a brief discussion of research on idea-generation techniques, the paper concludes that research on the creativity of organizational teams must take the organizational context into account, by distinguishing different ways to organize innovation and by acknowledging that the perceptions (or judgments) of others in the organization are relevant if an answer is to be given on some basic questions: Is this a creative group? Is this a creative idea?

Introduction Imagine that a small, artificial house-building company is used for science education. In this company real houses are being built, albeit from chipboard, cardboard and glue. Plans are provided for ‘small’ and ‘large’ houses. Raw materials and capital goods (saws, scissors, and the like) needed to make these houses are bought by a commercial department, headed by a commercial managing director. Goods and materials are distributed over three production units, two of which making semifinished products, a third assembling these. Each unit is supervised by a foreman. The overall flow of production is managed by a technical managing director. End products are sold on ‘the external market’ by the commercial department. A personnel department, headed by a personnel managing director, administers wages. The three managing directors together are the board of the company, and decide about general policy (for a description of this artificial company, see Vandermeer & Roodink, 1989; Vissers, 1994, 1998) For a number of years this artificial company (a ‘simulation game’ as we will refer to it) was used to provide students in engineering with some organizational experience before they would be employed as a trainee in a real company. The students did not receive behavioral prescriptions. Instead of being told what to do, they were invited ‘to make a good organization’, and to make all the changes they deemed necessary for that. This 1

question stemmed from the idea that students will have different views about what ‘a good organization’ is, in part as a result of their previous views and experiences, in part related to their ‘present occupation’ in the artificial company, and that these different views will influence the course of processes once change attempts are being made. The students who participated in the simulation game were all graduate students in engineering, mostly in chemistry or electrotechnics. Consequently, not only ‘desirable’ positions in the company, like director, or member of the commercial department, were occupied by engineering students, but also the less challenging positions of ‘carver’, ‘assembler’, or even ‘production unit apprentice’. All positions had been assigned randomly, before the start of the simulation game. For many graduate students in engineering, an organization that offers them nothing but work in a production unit is not a good organization. As the students had been invited to make a good organization, those occupying an undesired position may soon start making change attempts, either individually (e.g. finding a ‘better’ position) or as a group (e.g. production work enrichment, task circulation, company restructuring). The simulation game described here was ‘run’ many times. Considerable changes were achieved in some of these runs but not in others. Sometimes the directors would resist what they viewed to be major changes, arguing for instance that ‘first the company had to become profitable’. Sometimes the directors, or other groups in the company, had ideas of their own about improving the company. It was found to be very difficult, often, to reconcile different sets of ideas on how to change the company. In the absence of at least some working agreement, withholding of change was a likely outcome. Typically, different groups in the simulation game did not react the same way to this type of failure. Of course, any organizational group that finds itself unable to realize its plans will be disappointed, if not discouraged. However, a remarkable difference could be observed between production units and other organizational groups. While directors, commercial department, or personnel department seemed to be able to get over it when a change attempt foundered, workers in production units often had great difficulty to overcome the disappointment, and would not seldom become rather apathetic after repeated failure: uninterested, passive, no energy, no ideas. One conclusion that can be drawn from the above observation concerns the need for responsible and intrinsically rewarding work, as stressed in the literature on organizational behavior and in industrial sociology (Herzberg, 1966; Hackman and Oldham, 1976; Campion and McClelland, 1991). A second conclusion is that creativity – taken here, for the moment, as the ability to generate ideas – is not merely an individual quality but a group-level phenomenon as well. These two conclusion are related, most notably in a number of studies hypothesizing that ‘task context’ influences intrinsic motivation, which in turn influences creative achievement (Oldham & Cummings: 1996, 609). In the present paper we will concentrate on the second conclusion, using the observation made above as a starting point for discussing the creativity of product design teams. In section 1 we will discuss approaches in which creativity is viewed as an individual’s aptitude or achievement. Most of the work on creativity falls in this category. In section 2 we consider studies that explore the relation between creativity and groups. These studies are – in terms of research object – very close to the present paper’s endeavor of charting a way to study creativity in the context of product development teams. Our discussion of the literature is critical, however. Early studies in this field draw upon laboratory experiments with small, temporary ‘groups’. More recent studies emphasize ‘diversity’ as a source of creativity, which readily leads to the paradox that the same requirement of ‘shared views’ that is often considered necessary for good team functioning is harmful for creativity. We will argue that the attempt to solve this paradox, or to surpass it, may pave the way for a better understanding of group creativity. In section 3 we will briefly examine creativityenhancing techniques, more specifically, research that aims at understanding the ‘ingredients’ that are supposed to make such techniques work. In section 4, finally, we will argue that the study of group creativity requires that the organizational context of a group or team is taken into account. In particular, we will suggest a distinction to be made between temporary and permanent (product development) teams. In a final section, the line of reasoning is summarized, and conclusions will be formulated that may encourage discussion. 2


Creativity research: Psychological approaches

Creativity research has long been absorbed by the question of individual creativity. Psychologists tried to unravel the factors responsible for creative achievement, either of ‘highly creative’ individuals (as a separate category) or in general. These two different research traditions1 have been very influential in defining creativity and setting a research agenda, thus influencing research on group creativity indirectly. Direct influence on group creativity research is smaller, as the factors identified in either tradition do not include group processes. The first tradition, referred to by Gardner (1988: 299) as ‘holistic approach’, is a one in which a product that is undoubtedly creative – be it a scientific discovery or a major work of art – is taken as a starting point, and the aim is to reveal the factors that allowed for the act of creating this product. Research in this tradition tends to concentrate on the efforts of individuals, sometimes speaking of ‘genius’ (for a critique, see Weisberg, 1986). In this approach the question what is a ‘creative product’ does not have to be addressed, as creativity is assumed to be present. In the other tradition (atomistic approach, in Gardner’s words), this question cannot be ignored. Creative people cannot be treated as a separate category, it is assumed, as creativity is not an attribute that is either present or absent. Research should reveal the relation between individual characteristics, in terms of personality or cognitive style, and creative outcomes produced. The degree of creativity of outcomes is either determined statistically (psychometric approaches of creativity, see Plucker & Runco, 1998) or is assessed by experts (Hennessey & Amabile, 1988). Research in this tradition relies on context-free tasks, in an attempt to prevent results that reflect educational or cultural differences between people. Elements of both approaches seem useful for the study of group creativity. The holistic approach shows the importance of context, ‘situatedness’, and process. Creative products are viewed as embedded in a particular social environment, concrete (at least for those who are part of this environment), and often preceded by a long period of searching and probing. Particularly interesting is the hypothesis that creative achievements result from the confrontation of knowledge from distinct cognitive structures (see for example Lehman’s work on the relationship between creativity and age, discussed by Mumford and Gustafson (1988)). The atomistic approach, in contrast, suggests that creativity is a ‘normal’, rather than an extraordinary capacity. In addition, this approach directs attention, however reluctantly, to the problem of measuring creativity. These merits imply limitations. Both approaches, but especially the ‘atomistic approach’, tend to concentrate on individuals’ aptitudes and achievements. Moreover, the ‘atomistic approach’ views creativity as a phenomenon that can be studied in isolation, on the basis of context-free tasks. Related to this is the ‘atomistic’ tendency to make ‘objective’ claims, that is, to disregard the possibility that different audiences will not assign a given idea or product the same degree of creativity. Thus, the ‘atomistic’ approach tends to ignore the social process in which a ‘product’ may or may not come to be viewed as creative. This tendency is also present in the ‘holistic’ approach, in which ‘obvious’ cases of creative achievement are studied – without asking what it is that constitutes this obviousness (see Schaffer, 1994). Given the purpose of studying (product design) team creativity, these are serious limitations. Above we observed that some organizational groups are more likely than others to become apathetic, losing their energy and running out of ideas, and we suggested that creativity is, at least in part, a group-level phenomenon. Note that individual capacities cannot explain the observed lack of ideas in the production units, as all positions in the simulation game were occupied by graduate students, after random assignment. This is not to deny that individuals may differ in creative capacities. It is only argued here that the study of group creativity cannot fully be based on approaches that focus on individual creativity. Our argument starts from runs of a simulation game in which specific groups of students seemed to gradually lose much of their ability to generate ideas, as described above. The simulation game, moreover, did not

This distinction is not meant to give a complete overview of psychological approaches to creativity. For example, it does not encompass the study of creativity as an aspect of children’s development.


emphasize design tasks. Rather than claiming that the observation we made can be applied directly to teams or groups in extant organizations, we suggest that the mechanisms that produced the observed decline in group creativity may also be at work in real-life groups and teams, including those involved in the creativitydemanding task of product design. In the next sections we will discuss contributions to the study of group creativity, thereby making the attempt to identify some mechanisms that may underlie creative performance. A second limitation of the two approaches mentioned includes such seemingly unrelated issues as context-free tasks, ‘objective’ assessment of the creativity of performances, and the failure to acknowledge that it often takes a lengthy process of negotiation, habituation, and adjustment before a new idea materializes into a product, and before this product becomes widely accepted (the sociology of technology offers many examples in support of the latter claim; see Bijker, Hughes, and Pinch, 1987). Teams are embedded in organizations, hence their tasks are context-bound; and statements on ‘the creativity’ of ideas or products delivered have to be made with reference to some ‘audience’. When the first and second issue are rephrased this way, it appears that the three issues mentioned have in common that they all relate to the question of what happens once an idea has been developed. Perhaps for the first issue this is not fully evident, as companies exist in which it is a responsibility of the design team to define its own tasks, as a first stage of creative design. In a later section we will return to this point, arguing that a distinction may have to be made between temporary and permanent teams – and, related to this, between assigned and self-determined design tasks. Thus we will argue that ‘the organizational context’ be taken into account in research on group creativity. The perception and evaluation of an idea’s newness and its usefulness – often mentioned as the main criteria for creativity assessment (Amabile and Conti, 1999; Tierney, Farmer, and Graen, 1999: 593) – are likely to differ between different types of product design teams’ organizational embeddedness, perhaps even to the extent that in an ‘assigned task-company’ other than creativity-related evaluation criteria prevail (e.g. design according to specifications, deadline met). 2. Idea Generation in Groups

The belief that groups perform differently, and better, than individuals on creative problem-solving tasks has a long history. In Crosby’s (1968: 90) words, “Man has always believed that two heads are better than one.” Applied to the question of creativity, this belief has given rise to some important strands of research, as well as to a range of creativity-enhancing techniques. These techniques will be discussed in the next section. In the present section we will examine brainstorming research, psychological experiments to determine whether and why groups outperform individuals on creative tasks, and studies to explore the relationship between group characteristics and creativity, in the lab and in the field. The studies to be discussed in this section have had, and continue to have, a clear impact on thinking about group creativity, even though some are based on the assumption – as the approaches mentioned earlier – that creativity can be viewed as a phenomenon that can be studied in isolation and on the basis of context-free tasks. It is useful to realize that several claims on the creativity of groups and teams derive from research that was conducted three or more decades ago, reflecting the concerns and the views of the day (including views about how to do research). With this caveat in mind we may look at some of the major contributions to the study of creativity in groups. First we will discuss research on brainstorming, probably the best-known and most widely used technique for idea generation in groups (Nijssen and Lieshout, 1995), but also a technique that throughout its existence has been the subject of scientific criticism. A frequently raised objection is that brainstorming, as an idea generation technique, is poorly defined (e.g. Crosby, 1968: 35). Well-known is McGrath (1984) conclusion that brainstorming groups are less efficient in generating ideas than idea generating individuals: “Individuals working separately generate many more, and more creative (as rated by judges) ideas than do groups, even when the redundancies among member ideas are deleted (..).The difference is large, robust, and general” (McGrath, 1984: 131). This conclusion, that is consistent with studies by Milton (1965) and by Vroom, Grant, 4

and Cotton (1969), has found its way to organization studies (see Hosking and Morley, 1991: 183), but how robust and general is the superiority of individuals over groups in idea generation? McGrath seems to rely on only two studies: Taylor, Berry, and Block (1958), and Dunnette, Campbell and Jaastad (1963). These studies, however valuable, do not allow for the firm conclusion drawn by McGrath. The groups that were studied in three domains (university students, research personnel in industry, advertisers in industry) were atypical: 4-members groups, homogeneous in terms of professional background and hierarchical level, with no history or future as a group. As a consequence the claim that ‘real’ groups were studied is hardly justified. Ideas generated by these groups on some more or less realistic tasks were compared (quantitatively and qualitatively) with ideas generated by individuals, and individuals were found to perform better. Remarkable is that Dunnette et al. (1963) do not discuss the possibility that differences found between the ‘individual condition’ and the ‘group condition’ can be ascribed, at least in part, to differences in time-to-speak (in a group you cannot speak all at the same time). What they do mention is a highly interesting order effect (individuals performed better after having participated in a group) and an effect of background/type of work (the difference between individuals and groups was clearly larger for advertising personnel than for research personnel). In short, McGrath’s claim that individuals working separately generate more, and more creative ideas than do groups seems too short a summary of findings obtained. Moreover, this conclusion is too general considered the kind of groups that have been studied. In the words of Sutton and Hargadon (1996: 688): “Nearly all brainstorming research was done with participants who (1) had no past or future task interdependence; (2) had no past or future social relationships; (3) didn’t use the ideas generated; (4) lacked pertinent technical expertise; (5) lacked skills that complement other participants; (6) lacked expertise in doing brainstorming; and (7) lacked expertise in leading brainstorming sessions.” A different point is that McGrath’s conclusion seems superseded by findings obtained in the realm of electronic communication. ‘Electronic groups’ have been found to outperform both collocated groups and individuals (Gallupe, Bastianutti, and Cooper, 1991; Ocker, Hiltz, Turoff, and Fjermestadt, 1995). This finding can be detailed in many ways. Differences have been reported between kinds of electronic communication and between tasks (Aiken, Vanjani, and Paolillo, 1996; Shirani, Tafti, and Affisco, 1999), In addition, factors like group composition (heterogeneity), group longevity, member characteristics (age, education), member familiarity, and process characteristics such as anonymity and facilitation have been found to influence group performance (Guzzo and Dickson, 1996; Sosik, Avolio and Kahai, 1998). Thus, in addition to the comments made above, McGrath’s conclusion seems not to apply to groups that use electronic media for communication. These remarks do neither credit nor discredit brainstorming as an idea-generation technique. Rather, they suggest that research on the issue does not allow for sweeping conclusions because of the very specific kind of groups examined. This holds, we think, even when the possibility of electronic communication is left out. The problem of ad hoc groups, as phrased by Sutton and Hargadon, applies not only to research on brainstorming, but also to research addressing the more general question if ‘more heads are better than one’ in areas like decision making, problem solving, and idea generation. Hill (1982) reviews more than 60 years of research on this ‘more heads’ question, to arrive at the conclusion that group effects are contingent on task demands, member resources, and group processes. Noticeably, the large number of studies in Hill’s review includes only one single study of ‘a practiced group’: Research on the relation between individual and group decision making, problem solving, and idea generation has typically been experimental research, more specifically, research of a type that is open to Sutton and Hargadon’s criticism. In addition, the groups studied were often very small - which means that group size may prevent phenomena to develop that are typical of larger ‘small groups’, e.g. subgroup development and majority/minority issues (Nemeth and Wachtler, 1983). In many studies the group had to solve a problem with a correct solution, and the question to be answered by the experiment was whether a group arrives at a correct solution if at least one of its members is able to solve the problem (the ‘truth wins’-hypothesis, see Laughlin, 1980). Of course, this research question requires that groups are heterogeneous in the sense of ‘including members of different ability’ - as in Hill’s conclusions. 5

Thus it appears that in two respects the ‘more heads’ research deviates from brainstorming research as discussed above: in type of questions asked (closed versus open) and in group composition (heterogeneous versus homogeneous). The first is hardly an issue in creativity research. Rather than examining problems with a known solution (in which case it may be difficult to speak of ‘creativity’) creativity researchers tend to rely on ‘open problems’. A good example is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (Torrance, 1966), widely used in research on individuals’ creative potential. Another example are the questions used by Dunnette, Campbell, and Jaastad (1963). The issue of group composition, in contrast, has become a subject of interest, at least in relation to creativity in organizations. The key word is ‘diversity’, a concept referring to ‘demographic’ characteristics of gender, age, and ethnicity’, and often also to a number of less ‘readily detectable attributes’ (Jackson, May, and Whitney, 1995; Shaw & Barret-Power, 1998; Williams & O’Reilly, 1998). This is clearly different from heterogeneity as ‘including members of different ability.’ When reporting that “heterogeneous groups are more likely than homogeneous groups to be creative and to reach high-quality decisions,” Jackson (1992: 148) means diversity although she uses the word heterogeneity. Many arguments have been proposed to explain the observed positive relationship between diversity and creativity. Jackson (1996) summarizes a number of arguments: “During the environmental scanning that occurs in the earliest phase of decision-making, members with diverse perspectives should provide a more comprehensive view of the possible issues that might be placed on the team’s agenda, including both threats and opportunities. (..) Discussion among members with diverse perspectives should improve the team’s ability to consider a variety of alternative interpretations of the information gathered by the team and to generate creative solutions that integrate the diverse perspectives. As the team discusses alternative courses of action and solutions, diverse perspectives presumably will increase the team’s ability to foresee all possible cost, benefits, and side-effects.” (Jackson, 1996: 60). This line of argument is consistent with Hackman’s earlier observation that homogeneous groups lack the range of perspectives that may assist in error cancellation and in the development of active discussion which can promote innovative ideas (quoted by Denton, 1997: 159), and consistent with that claim that intragroup diversity will foster an R&D group’s creative performance (Andrews, 1979; Payne, 1990). Plausible though such a positive relation between diversity and creativity may be, two comments are made here. One is that this relation seems not based on strong empirical evidence. In a recent review of diversity studies, Williams and O’Reilly (1998) observe a difference between laboratory/classroom settings and ‘intact working groups within an organizational context’: “In the laboratory the results sometimes show that group diversity can improve the quality of a given decision or the creativity of an idea. The research on intact working groups, on the other hand, paints a less optimistic view of the effects of diversity on group functioning. It provides evidence of the possible dysfunctional aspects of heterogeneity in groups, including increased stereotyping, ingroup/out-group effects, dysfunctional conflict, and turnover” (Williams & O’Reilly, 1998: 79). But assume that additional studies would confirm the claim that diversity is beneficial for group creativity, and for the reasons given above. Then, as a second comment, we face a paradox. Teams are widely supposed to function well (which includes creative and innovative behaviors) if values and goals are shared, if groups members ‘feel they have something in common with other members of the group’ (Moore, 1997), if levels of interpersonal attraction are high (Triandis, Hall, and Ewen, 1965), or if the group climate is supportive (Anderson and West, 1998). Consistent with this supposition is the finding that (demographic) diversity increases conflict, reduces cohesion, complicates internal communications, and hampers coordination within the team (Ancona and Caldwell, 1992: 323). But very inconsistent with the supposition is the view that creative work requires different perspectives and differences of opinion. In accordance with the ‘discord’ hypothesis is Katz and Allen’s (1982) finding that the performance of research groups starts to decline after only five years’ tenure. This five year period may even be too optimistic. Kanter (1988: 176) and Jackson (1992) both refer to a study by Pelz and Andrews (1966) in which it was found that “It took only 3 years for a heterogeneous group of interdisciplinary scientists who worked together every day to become homogeneous in perspective and approach to problems” (Kanter, 1988: 176). Yet, in the chapter on 6

groups in the revised edition of their study, Pelz and Andrews (1976: 240-260) mention a period of four to five years after which the performance of research groups tends to decline, which resembles Katz and Allen’s estimate. Staw (1990: 297), discussing Katz and Allen’s study, emphasizes that communication with outsiders – widely considered to be a primary source of variation and vitality - will decrease when research group membership has stabilized. Pelz and Andrews (1976) mention this as one explanatory factor, among others such as frequency and time spent communicating with chief and main colleagues, cohesiveness (defined as the proportion of significant colleagues chosen from within the group), competition (both with colleagues and with other groups) and, presumably related with competition, a hesitance to share ideas (‘secretiveness’): in all these respects, group average scores drop as groups grow older. Also noticeable is the increase in individuals’ ‘liking for deep specialising’ with rise of group age (Pelz and Andrews, 1976: 244-252). Can the harmony/creativity paradox be dissolved, or are we dealing with a genuine contradiction? We will briefly discuss three promising approaches. A first is to consider subpopulations separately (preferably on the basis of theory). One example is Ancona and Caldwell’s (1992) suggestion to distinguish between (product development) teams that are homogeneous or diverse in terms of organizational tenure (which refers to the moment an individual joined the organization), and between teams that are functionally homogeneous or diverse. Another example was already provided by Pelz and Andrews (1976: 257-258), who observed that the relation between group age and performance is mediated by ‘group intellectual tension’ (an index measure combining ‘secretiveness’ and ‘perceived dissimilarity’). The average of individuals’ ‘over-all usefulness’ (as rated by supervisory and nonsupervisory seniors within each laboratory studied) was initially high in ‘mild tension’ groups, to fall sharply after three years. In high tension groups, in contrast, the average was not very high, initially, but then increased sharply to reach a peak at age four/five, then dropped though remaining at a level well above the mild tension group at age ten/twelve. Fiol’s (1994) suggestion to open up the seemingly simple concept of consensus can be viewed as a second approach to dissolve the paradox. To learn as a community, Fiol argues, organizational members must simultaneously agree and disagree. Simultaneous agreement and disagreement is possible as ‘meaning’ (interpretation, understanding) is a multidimensional construct that includes both the contents of communication and the way this communication is framed, that is, “the way people construct their argument or viewpoint, regardless of its content” (Fiol, 1994: 405). ‘Content’ may comprise a range of topics and issues, each of which can be a subject of agreement, disagreement, or partial agreement. Frames may vary in breadth (number or scope of issues), and in rigidity (degree of certainty conveyed). Both content and frame may include ‘overtly subjective’ and ‘apparently objective’ elements. Already without a more detailed presentation of Fiol’s model being offered here, it may be clear that her approach provides clues for exploring the conditions and the limits of the harmony/creativity paradox. In any case, the model shows that creative cooperation in a team does not require shared views to be fully absent, as demonstrated by Jehn, Chadwick, and Thatcher’s (1997) distinction between task conflict, that is potentially fruitful, and process conflict, that is more likely to be damaging. A third approach, finally, is to delve into the process by which members of a product development team create ‘newness’: new ideas or new products. Here the process description provided by Allen (1977/1995) can be referred to. Allen first makes a distinction between an idea and a message, adopting a definition of the latter from Menzel (1960): some kind of unit of information transmitted or of communication achieved. He then goes on to delineate a process in which an engineer receives messages from a variety of sources, as a ‘star’ in a communication network (Allen’s study draws upon social network analysis): “A message is not necessarily a complete idea. Usually a potential solution results from messages received through several channels. The engineer integrates these into what becomes a new technical idea. This is where the element of creativity enters. The engineer is not merely reurgitating once-consumed information. He associates messages with one another, sees possible new combinations, and thereby creates something that is new and potentially useful. (..) The engineer integrated the information contained in the different messages and developed the final idea from them. (..) The engineer’s ability to perform this integration is what we have come to call creativity. He performs the creative act, but he is heavily dependent upon information inputs to do so” (Allen, 1977/1995: 27). 7

Allen’s description is general, specifying neither channels nor messages. In practice, for instance in the realm of a particular product development team, some channels are more likely to be used than others, and some messages are more likely to convey new information than others. In this respect, the difference between homogeneous and diverse teams is relevant. For someone in a team, other team members are an important channel. When these other members have similar backgrounds than Allen’s receiving engineer (for instance in terms of education), their messages may be taken seriously, as they originate from a knowledge base that is known to and approved by the receiving engineer, but for the same reason the messages will often not contain new information. Compare this with a diverse team, members of which have dissimilar backgrounds. Here again, other team members may be an important channel – perhaps because that is demanded by a task to be performed. But now, many messages will originate from a knowledge base the receiver is not familiar with, and therefore will be more difficult to understand. Thus, misunderstanding is more likely in a diverse than in a homogeneous team. Duncker (1998, chapter 5) offers various examples of misunderstanding in crossdisciplinary communication, obtained in a study of cooperation between monodisciplinary research sites. She concludes that attempts to reduce misunderstanding by creating ‘boundary objects,’ ‘translation dictionaries,’ or whatever shared vocabulary or ‘common ground’ is developed for that purpose, will never be fully successful: “When information moves from one site to another, locally specific meanings of the originating site are stripped away and specific meanings of the destination site are added. Differences between a direct link (like translation dictionaries) and an indirect one (like a lingua franca) concern the quality of the mutations and the degree of control over them, but they do not suppress the fact that deformations do occur. There is no transformation of information without deformation in multidisciplinary cooperations.” (Duncker, 1998: 175) We agree, except for one point. It is very misleading to use the word ‘deformation’. True, from the viewpoint of one particular discipline/site, a perception of information sent that deviates from the sender’s intentions will be a misperception. But more important than representing a sender’s first judgment is the question how this ‘misperceived’ information is sent back and forth between sites in ongoing interaction. The result may well be ideas or products that could not have been developed without an interaction process ‘fueled’ by a series a ‘misinterpretations’. The three approaches to ‘solve’ the harmony/creativity paradox are compatible, we think. They differ in level of abstraction, and in focus: the different groups-approach concentrates on factors that are most relevant for identifying different (sub)groups, Fiol analyses ‘consensus’ and specifies forms of (dis)agreement that deserve separate treatment, and the approach initiated by Allen paves the way for an account of group creativity in terms of communication between different social worlds (Strauss, 1978) or thought worlds (Dougherty, 1992). In particular, Fiol’s analysis may add to the latter perspective the recognition that framing, in its various forms, cannot be overlooked when the question is to be answered when and why some messages are more likely to be taken seriously, and to be replied positively, than others. However, while the approaches we discussed may deepen our understanding of group creativity, they may not meet the, apparently great, need for measures and methods that can immediately be used to enhance group creativity. Additional research may reveal further sources of diversity, further ways in which content and frames are related, (many) more details about message acceptance and interpretation, but for practitioners progress in research may not be the main point. More important, probably, is that ‘diversity promotion’ is a precarious activity in relation to creativity. It may work – we have given theoretical reasons, and referred to studies reporting creative accomplishments in practice – but it is uncertain whether and when it will, and in what direction. Between group members (or groups) who do not understand each other well, interaction will be difficult, and there is a risk of early break off. We do not know yet how many companies are willing to invest in what may seem a kind of gamble (you may become very rich, but you may end up poorer than you were when you started). What we do know is that many companies invest in less expensive, perhaps less promising, but certainly less risky methods for creativity enhancement. Such methods are abundant. We will briefly discuss a recent study by Smith (1998), to our knowledge the first to explore the usefulness of various creativityenhancing techniques. 8

3. Research on creativity-enhancing techniques Of the many creativity-enhancing techniques that are available (Isaksen and Treffinger, 1985; Couger, 1995; Sutton and Hargadon, 1996; Aiken, Vanjani, and Paolillo, 1996; Nickerson, 1999; Goldenberg and Mazursky, 2000), some are widely known and frequently used. Studies to compare different techniques in terms of process or outcomes are extremely scarce, however. Only recently a systematical attempt has been made to identify the ‘active ingredients’ present in these techniques (Smith, 1998). Within a sample of 172 idea-generation methods, Smith (1998) identifies fifty ‘idea-generation devices’, including such diverse operations as decomposition, abstraction, change of perspective, boundary stretching, and force fit. Next, these devices are classified as strategies (‘active means for generating ideas’), tactics (‘stimulatory tools that support strategies’), or enablers (‘passive means of promoting idea generation’). Smith (1998: 129-130) claims that “by focusing on active ingredients, rather than methods, researchers can conduct efficient tests of what works and what doesn’t,” although he does recognize that ‘task-device interactions’ may have to be hypothesized (in other words, a device that works in one case may not work in another), and although he realizes that in practice devices will be used jointly, in ‘packaged interventions.’ Smith’s study provides a useful starting-point for comparative research on the working of creativity-enhancing techniques. We add some comments that may contribute to the quality of such research. Our starting point is that the distinction between strategies, tactics, and enablers as proposed by Smith is not clear, nor are the reasons for making this very distinction. We suggest two other distinctions to be made instead. One is that some devices (and some techniques, for that matter) seem to derive from the assumption that creativity is a mental state or attribute, to be found with individual persons, whereas other devices allow creativity to be viewed as (also) a group-level phenomenon. If creativity is seen as an individual attribute, the question is how to alter an individual’s views and/or way of thinking – which means that this individual has to be loosened to some extent from his or her social environment (for individuals have developed and are reinforcing their views and thinking in interaction). If, in contrast, creativity is viewed as (also) a group-level phenomenon, further possibilities can be considered in which the interactions between group members play a significant role. For clarification, let’s rephrase the issue in managerial terms. When a team is found to be less creative than it should be, what are the options for a manager who believes that creativity is an individual attribute? S/he may add some highly creative individuals, look for ways to boost individual team members’ creativity, and/or make arrangements to make sure that the most creative members are supported (at least, not hampered) by others. A manager who believes that creativity is (also) a group phenomenon has more options. In addition to individual-oriented measures s/he may examine communication patterns, issues of group composition, the division of tasks, thereby considering ‘highly creative individuals’ as very important but not indispensable. Further measures are even possible that pertain to the group’s position in the larger organization, a subject that will be discussed in the next section. A second distinction we suggest is between ‘cognitive’ and ‘metacognitive’ devices or techniques. Quotes are used here as we realize that not anyone engaged in developing creativity-enhancing techniques will appreciate this vocabulary. What this distinction means to convey is the difference between techniques that are used to deal directly with an existing problem, and techniques aiming at improving the ability, of individuals or groups, to find creative solutions for future problems. We must be careful, however, in putting forward this distinction. It is conceivable that a meta-cognitive technique is used for cognitive purposes, simply by choosing an actual problem as input for a session in which the technique is used. If so, we may have to distinguish between uses of a device/technique, rather than between intrinsic properties. This being said, we contend that a distinction between ‘cognitive’ and ‘metacognitive’ is revealing, as it makes way for questions of transfer of knowledge, experiences, skills, in short, learning. Note that the division proposed here closely resembles Argyris and Schön’s (1978) distinction between ‘double loop’ and ‘deutero’ learning, and that it also seems to relate to the distinction between ‘near’ and ‘far’ transfer (Mayer and Greeno, 1972; Gray and Orasanu, 1987). Transfer of knowledge and skills has been found difficult to demonstrate, in educational research (see Cormier and Hagman, 1987) and in research on the external effects of simulations and games (see Percival, Lodge, and 9

Saunders, 1993). The same methodological difficulties that hamper the study of transfer in other domains will present themselves if the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired through creativity-enhancing techniques is studies. Thus, seemingly simple questions - when will transfer take place, with whom, how, to what extent, under what conditions, when will it fail to appear – will not allow for easy answers. But difficult though they may be, transfer-related questions are vital if an efficient test is to be made ‘of what works and what doesn’t’, the kind of test anticipated by Smith (1998). Arrived here, let us make a somewhat disbelieving remark. We admit that many of the fifty ‘active ingredients’ listed by Smith (1998: 115-118) are likely to help people generate new ideas. Here, common experience can be relied upon. Reasoning by analogy, the use of fantasy, relying on past experiences, reasoning from assumption, decomposition of problems, debating, the use of checklists are all well-known ways to deal with problems, and so are many of the other devices mentioned. People use them all the time. Why, then, are these devices not used any more by a group that, apparently, ran out of ideas. Or perhaps they are used, but suddenly don’t work any more. Recall the groups in the simulation game we described in the beginning of this paper. Would such a group be able to benefit from someone offering a creativity-enhancing technique? Presumably so. Would the kind of technique offered make much of a difference? Perhaps not. And assumed that this conjecture is correct, must we draw the conclusion that the contents of an intervention are unimportant? This is not the kind of conclusion we seek to defend. Some techniques, and perhaps some devices, may have unique qualities. Identifying and demonstrating these qualities is very difficult, however, let alone explaining them. You use a technique and you get an effect: How can you tell that it were the intrinsic qualities of the technique, not the presentation nor the mere fact that attention was paid, that caused the effect? Meticulous research is necessary to delineate the processes, the circumstances, and the limits of ‘effect’. If creativity is involved, that may not even suffice, since ‘effect’ is now a highly complex concept. A creativity-enhancing techniques may contribute to a group’s functioning, its self-awareness, its capacity to generate ideas, but that does not necessarily suffice to speak of creativity. For that, the perceptions of others in the organization will also have to be taken into account. 4 Group creativity in organizations It was a striking observation that a straightforward simulation game of limited duration (approximately eight hours) did already suffice to bring various groups of engineering students in the position that they could no longer think of ways to improve their situation. But also remarkable was that this inability developed most frequently in ‘production unit’ groups. In the simulation game, the production units face fewer constraints than other groups (which does not necessarily mean, of course, that workers in a production unit have the experience of fewer constraints): They are performing rather simple tasks and these tasks can, if so desired, be completed in a small part of the time available; they can, most often, decide for themselves how to arrange this work; and finally, they are less than other groups in the simulation game forced to interrupt their work for reasons of decision making or failure in the alignment of activities. According to such ‘objective’ measures, the production units have more autonomy than other groups in the simulation. The question of autonomy is a salient one in thinking about creativity and innovation. Many authors emphasize idea generation as the first stage in an innovation process that proceeds best in the absence of constraints (e.g. Kolb, 1992; White, 1996; Zhou, 1998), whereas others maintain that innovation, in order to proceed efficiently, requires well-defined tasks (Hosking and Morley, 1991: 182; Gerwin and Moffat, 1997; Goldenberg and Mazursky, 2000). Goldenberg and Mazursky found that the application of past succesful templates of product development (‘bounded approach’) often contributes to the generation of promising ideas and concepts for future products, whereas “reliance on random events (or luck) is both inefficient and, for the most part, unreliable” (Goldenberg and Mazursky, 2000: 142). The authors conclude that ‘bounded ideation’ is to be preferred over ‘unbounded ideation,’ and that the alleged superiority of ‘unbounded ideation’ – or ‘randomness-enhancing methods’ – does not hold under close examination, although they do not reject a combination of bounded and unbounded 10

approaches, as proposed by Rickards and Moger (1999). These conclusions are in agreement, more or less, with Schoonhoven and Jelinek’s (1990: 98) view that “ad hoc organizations or loose, organic structures often recommended for innovation simply will not do, for the long run. Even if ad hoc arrangements might once have worked, their repeated success would be impossible, given the complexity of relations, technologies, and product changes. (..) These companies need reliable, repeatable methods to bring good ideas from concept to product to market.” Thus, Schoonhoven and Jelinek take issue with Burns and Stalker’s (1961) famous argument that an innovation process in its early stages requires an organic structure – characterized by fluid job descriptions, loose organization charts, high communication, few rules (see also Mintzberg (1979: 431f) who argues that innovation requires ‘adhocracy’) – whereas later, in implementation stages, a mechanistic structure is more appropriate (Burns and Stalker, 1961; Vermeulen and Dankbaar, forthcoming). A further conclusion by Goldenberg and Mazursky is that a ‘bounded approach’ (which does already incorporate experience with past marketing realities) must not be dominated by (marketing-supplied) analyses of current market needs, for the simple reason that customers will not be able to tell what products they will need in the future. This conclusion is remarkable, considered the tendency in innovation studies to associate ‘unconstrained’ or ‘free’ R&D with absence of organizational requirements, in particular marketing demands (see Simpson and Powell, 1999). Thus, the situation referred to as ‘bounded’ by Goldenberg and Mazursky is probably judged as ‘unbounded’ or ‘unconstrained’ by most innovation researchers. The point is, we presume, that Goldenberg and Mazursky concentrate on the patterns of behavior within new product design teams whereas innovation researchers usually focus on the place of a new product design team in the larger organization (Khurana and Rosenthal, 1998). While these patterns of behavior and this place in the organization are conceptually very different, there is reason to believe that they are linked. After reading a number of papers on new product development teams we realized that the studies described either concern project teams (or task forces, or whatever name is used for a temporary team) or permanent teams, not both. We have not yet made a systematical exploration, so we cannot present figures. But more important than percentages, we think, is that this failure to include temporary and permanent teams in a single research design means that some important issues have not been explicitly addressed in the literature: • • Implications for an organization of relying on (product) innovation performed by a temporary team, as compared to a permanent team; Differences between temporary and permanent teams, in terms of knowledge base, design procedures, task descriptions, contacts with other organizational groups, monitoring and assessment procedures.

For present purposes we will only discuss the differences between the two design team situations with regard to creativity issues, thereby ignoring that technological trajectories or innovation patterns are likely to differ between sectors or between firms within a sector (Pavitt, 1984; Dankbaar, 2000), and possibly between countries. First we will briefly sketch the two kinds of teams. For the sake of argument, we will stretch the difference between them. In a temporary (new product development) team, people are appointed to perform a particular task, usually on the basis of distinct expertise. The task to be performed is concrete; it was defined in advance by the (external) project initiator. The task can be decomposed into subtasks, which can be arranged in specific ways (e.g. ‘concurrent engineering’). Output criteria are clear already at the outset of the project. The moment of the team’s ‘adjourning’ is set in advance (for a discussion of the role played by this, see Gersick, 1988). The task has not been defined by the team itself, but the team will have to interpret it. Contacts with the rest of the organization are established if necessary, and may remain purely task-related (but this may vary, at least in part, with collocation and with project duration). The team will not have to convince the project initiator of the use of the product delivered, provided that product specifications are met. In a permanent product development team, people have not been appointed for some specific task. They may work on a number of designs simultaneously, individually or in groups (of varying composition). The scale and the duration of products being designed may vary. Goals and performance criteria are general, not related to a 11

particular design. Specific, product-related evaluation criteria will evolve, probably, together with the development of a product. Autonomy in task definition and internal process scheduling is possible. Contacts with the rest of the organization are ‘ongoing’, but may have to be expanded. The team will have to convince others in the organization that an idea generated or a product developed is feasible, useful, and profitable. As indicated, we have enlarged the difference between the two kinds of teams. In reality various forms inbetween these extremes are possible. Project teams will have some degree of autonomy since tasks cannot be spelled out in full detail, but also because there is always interpretation involved in reading a task description. On the other hand, permanent teams may be assigned project-like tasks. And if not, permanent teams may be socialized enough to work on tasks they consider relevant for the company at large. And a final point is that many permanent teams have started as a project team, which implies a grey area between the two types, and which means that anticipation processes may occur. Still it is useful to inspect the extremes, because a comparison suggests that completely different innovation trajectories are possible. In the case of a project team, making the decision that a project plan will be implemented is perhaps the clearest moment of risk taking. The subsequent processes of actual product development are ‘engineered’, and therefore controlled to a considerable extent. Surprises (including surprising new products) are not very likely, although they cannot be totally precluded. When an engineering approach to project work is adopted, team members are appointed on the basis of their current expertise; they will have to perform relatively well-defined subtasks, alone or in a small, homogeneous subteam. Communication with other subteams or with others in the organization is unnecessary, often, as the issue of integrating the parts delivered by subteams is dealt with by the project plan. Evaluation of performance is rather straightforward, as mentioned. Product specifications will have to be met, and in time. Such an engineering approach, highly constraining the development processes to evolve, is not applied in all project teams. But it is widespread, and it is discussed and refined in not a few papers on new product development and innovation management. If such an engineering approach is compared with product development in permanent product development teams, that are often more loosely organized, a first point is that the creativity-generating processes and techniques we discussed in earlier sections do apply to loosely organized teams, but hardly or not to ‘engineered’ teams. When an ‘engineered’ team is used, creativity is to be found in the drafting of the project plan, perhaps more than in the actual development work that is based on this plan. As many actors may have contributed to the drafting of the plan, it may be impossible to ‘situate’ creativity. But some other implications of ‘engineered design’ seem more important. (1) The quality of the plan will determine the quality of outcomes; there is little room for surprises, be it positive or negative ones. And because the plan concerns a single project, the project may be an all or nothing game. (2) Those who designed the plan must have an adequate picture of what is feasible, technologically, or the plan will either fail the utilize new technological possibilities or will include specifications that cannot be met. (3) Project teams often operate more or less in the margin of the company that is to implement the ideas or the product developed. Only after the project has been completed, issues of acceptance and fit will come to the fore, and these may be difficult to handle once the project team has been disbanded. It is unclear, then, who will be able to adjust or update the project deliveries. These comments may lead to the conclusion that permanent teams are the more favorable alternative. But this is not a necessary conclusion. Some companies may find themselves in a situation to value predictability more than originality or newness. Moreover, ‘engineered design’ may be a rather effective way to prevent time and energy-consuming, and often discouraging political processes of innovation (Frost and Egri, 1991; Jones and Stevens, 1999). And finally, a project team may be a vehicle for cross-functional communication within the company (by bringing organization members from various groups together), or an instrument to connect an organization to external sources of knowledge (by hiring people who developed expertise in a variety of other organizations). Thus, preferring one or the other innovation trajectory – with clear implications for the kind of creative processes that are supported – remains to be a matter of policy.


5. Conclusions The following conclusions can be drawn from the line of argument we have presented: • • Research on group creativity should be not restricted to group members’ creative capabilities. Research on group creativity should examine real work groups - with a history, real tasks, interests, organizational constraints – thus avoiding Sutton and Hargadon’s (1996) critique of ‘improvised’ groups used in laboratory research on brainstorming. Research on group creativity should focus on the relation between creativity and diversity, attempting to identify important forms of diversity and trying to understand the processes that produce ‘newness’. Research on group creativity should develop ways to explain the effects of creativity-enhancing techniques, thereby concentrating on the question of transfer of acquired cognitions and skills to real life application contexts. Research on group creativity should take into account the organizational context of the group or team being studied. Here, the distinction between permanent and temporary groups seems promising.

• •

The line of argument also implies a recommendation to practitioners: acknowledge the differences between (product) development processes taking place in a temporary and in a permanent team, acknowledge that different types of risk are involved, and decide what kind of risk you prefer – the risk that little will come out of interaction between designers with different backgrounds (or what will come out cannot be used), or the risk that plans are drafted that turn out to be either too ambitious or not ambitious enough. We were fast, perhaps too fast, to see a connection between temporary/permanent teams and constrained/unconstrained design. It is possible that temporary team/unconstrained design and permanent team/constrained design are viable options as well. However, the distinction we made did serve the purpose of demonstrating that new product development, and probably innovation in general, can be organized in very different ways. All the conclusions concerning research, and also the recommendation to practitioners (which ultimately calls for experimentation), are ‘secure’ in the sense of reflecting much useful work done in the realm of creativity research, yet making some comments and suggesting directions for future research. To finish this paper, we will discuss one point that is less secure, perhaps. A recurrent issue in creativity research is whether creativity is a capacity (of individuals, usually, but this might be extended to groups), or a process attribute, or an outcome characteristic (e.g. Hennessey and Amabile, 1988). Related are different definitions of creativity, and questions such as the ‘context-independent’ versus ‘situated’ nature of creativity. Also related, of course, are different ways to measure or judge creativity. In this paper we have not adhered to one particular definition. One reason is that choosing for a capacity-, a process-, or a product-related definition would deprive us from the possibility to explore how ‘creative capacities’, ‘creative processes,’ and ‘creative products’ are related. But there is a second reason. In the end, we are less interested in what creativity actually is than in the question when and why organizational actors judge others, judge work processes, and judge outcomes (ideas, products, procedures, whatever it is) as creative, for we believe this to be a or perhaps even the relevant factor in driving organizational innovation and change. It is possible and relevant to study the dynamics underlying such judgments, and to study the processes of generating something that is believed to be new (by those who generate it), its reception by others in the organizations (acceptance, partial acceptance, or rejection), its implementation, and its subsequent vicissitudes. This, we think, is a more fruitful way to study creativity in the context of group creativity and new product development than concentrating on external assessments of people (external experts, researchers using psychometric procedures to estimate creativity) who are not involved in the process.


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