Sustaining Innovation in Teams Print E-mail

What happens as a team "ages" that adversely affects its ability to perform?  Several interrelated factors appear to contribute: 

  • processes of normal development in individual employees;
  • group dynamics that move the group to become more insular and self-justifying,
  • a related reduction in dissent and access to new information and ideas,
  • loss of essential (for innovation) capabilities from the team as the specific capability(ies) essential in the earlier stages of innovation have reduced value relative to the dominating short-term goals of the team.

The normal longitudinal development process of individuals following the formation of a team (or an individual joining a team) is a critical contributor to this phenomenon.  As their time-in-job increases, individual employees progress through the phases of socialization (creating identity within the team, a kind of "breaking-in" process), to innovation (shift of energy from safety and acceptance toward achievement and influence), finally arriving at the phase of stabilization (achieve predictability and routine, protect autonomy, minimize vulnerability) (Katz, 2004).  Employee contribution, according to this model, is lower in the socialization phase, rises during the innovation phase, peaking after roughly 18 months, and then typically plateaus and declines in the stabilization phase. 

In teams for whom innovation is a critical success factor, the stabilization phase of individuals is particularly problematic.  "The willingness to go beyond that which is requested, to try something new, or to seek out new responsibilities, is not there" (Katz, p. 164).  Moreover, when a team's project is solidly in the project execution stage, trying something new or seeking out new responsibilities may not be seen as generally desirable in terms of progress toward the project's immediate goals.

According to Katz, group dynamics can amplify the effects of this typical performance trajectory for individuals.  If the major segment of team members progresses through these stages more or less in concert, then aggregate team performance will reflect a similar progression.  The productive innovation phase for members of the group will occur simultaneously, at roughly 18 months to four years of experience within the team.  And, beyond four years of average team tenure, stabilization behaviors, with their orientation toward risk aversion and predictability, tend to dominate.

Moreover, group dynamics for teams whose population has moved into the stabilization phase can create an environment that appears particularly hostile to innovative contribution.  Such groups tend to become more homogeneous, isolated, complacent, and resistant to ideas and perspectives in conflict with those adopted by the group itself.  Such a team culture, once established, tends to perpetuate itself, as the team selects new team members who will "fit in".  The group similarly will resist ideas that do not "fit" the group's predispositions.  This latter behavior is the source of the often observed "Not Invented Here" (NIH) syndrome in well-established teams.  In some sense, a strong, cohesive team identity, often viewed as a virtue, may have its own "shadow side".  Reported job satisfaction may, in fact, still be high.  This state would appear to be an unconscious entry into Out of Sync, at least with respect to innovative potential.

Associated with this characteristic insularity is an observable reduction in communication of all forms.  Communication, the ability to gather and/or share ideas internally, with other teams in the corporation, and with the world outside the corporation (the marketplace, customers, competitors, or the peer community for the disciplines involved) is a strong characteristic of high performing teams (Katz and Tushman, 2004) as well as high performing individuals (Allen, 2004).  Reduced levels of all forms of communications are common in long-tenure teams.  Such teams tend to become increasingly isolated from external changes (e.g., changes in customer behavior and requirements) and technological development.

I believe that loss of key roles required for innovation also contributes to declining team performance over time.  Once a project shifts solidly into the project execution stage, routine problem solving becomes the dominant project activity within the team.  At this point, employees oriented toward idea generation, championing, gatekeeping, and sponsoring may find few such roles to fill and may choose to leave the team.  This tendency may be reinforced if the team's reward system shifts to favor project leading and execution and the skills associated excellence in routine problem solving.  As discussed earlier, while the project may continue to execute, its relevancy may decline.  And, when the project completes and the team attempts a mini-transition to begin a new project, the team may find it has lost much of the intellectual competency required to fully explore project possibilities in search of a new innovation project.

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