How Team Communication Affects Innovation

Good communication is a prerequisite for good teamwork. But how much is enough?

A March 2004 paper published in Creativity and Innovation Management makes the case that the amount of communication among the members of small research-and-development teams makes a big difference in their creativity. The paper, “Stimulating the Potential: Creative Performance and Communication in Innovation Teams,” was authored by Jan Kratzer, assistant professor for business development; Roger Leenders, associate professor of business development; and Jo van Engelen, professor of business development, all from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

The authors studied innovation teams in 11 Dutch companies involved in developing hardware products ranging from computers to copiers. They collected questionnaires from 243 employees on 44 teams. The idea was to measure how creative performance, as self-reported by the employees, was affected by the levels and patterns of communication among team members. The frequency of communication was found to be a significant factor in creative output.

Earlier research indicated that effective teamwork requires that team members communicate a minimum of one to three times per week. But innovation teams tend to communicate much more than that, Kratzer says. “A certain amount of communication is necessary, but when it exceeds that threshold, it becomes a negative,” and teams perform less well.

This finding is not a simple indictment of chats around the water cooler. Rather, the authors posit that extensive communication, whether face-to-face, by phone, by e-mail or through instant messaging, can lead to a group-think mentality that stifles originality. Some team members may start to evaluate assumptions less rigorously. Others may coast on the group’s ideas and expend less of their own effort on the project.

However, the authors found that too little communication among a team’s subgroups also leads to suboptimal performance. “Most [products] are quite complex,” Kratzer explains, “so you have to deconstruct them” to get the right team members working on the right parts of the product. However, the subgroups should not isolate themselves lest they become blinded by their own assumptions and develop their own language, which can lead to misinterpretations or noncomplementary approaches to innovation within the team.

The longer a team stays together, the study found, the more likely it is that cliques will form. Larger teams are able to counteract clique formation by rotating individuals through a number of different subgroups. Small companies, however, may not have that option. In those cases, Kratzer advises that managers should link subgroups in a way that facilitates communication among them.

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