The Creative Space Model – a Tool for Teams
Mark Komen, President
In the fifteen-plus years that I have been involved with teams – as a student of the team concept, a team member, a team leader, a manager, and a consultant – I have learned some important lessons culled from personal experience: team members like working on teams, functional managers don’t know if they like teams or not, not everyone makes a good team member, and it’s a much more difficult to build and sustain a team over time than many people realize. For teams involved in new product development, these issues can be compounded by the need to work together in a creative environment. To do so effectively requires a heightened level of awareness from team members, team leaders, and the organizations that support them.
The research I completed for my Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership thesis1 identified ecological parameters that technical professionals on new product development teams face in order to facilitate innovation. This qualitative study allowed me to enhance my own team experiences by learning about the challenges and struggles the team members and team leaders I interviewed are dealing with at their companies, as well as their approaches to solving problems. Although the research focused exclusively on technical professionals working on teams, I feel the work could be readily applied to teams of other types of knowledge workers as well.
In my thesis, I offer the idea of a creative space where team members can exercise their creative powers. The model is a graphical representation of the defining forces working to enable creativity in the team environment (the expanding forces). The model also includes forces that confine as well as disable creativity (the constraining forces). The model is shown in Figure 1.
The expanding forces are those elements which act to increase the size of the creative space in which teams of technical professionals work. The expanding forces primarily lie within the boundaries of the team and are most readily under the control of the team leader and the team members. Awareness of and attention to these forces will enlarge the creative space in the presence of the constraining forces external to the team.
Challenge – Technical professionals enjoy challenging work. Challenging work allows technical professionals to use their specialized skills and develop new ones. Learning new skills permits technical professionals to grow in breadth as well as depth, and the exposure to new concepts is an important source of new ideas. The team environment, where technical professionals blend their diverse skills to bring an innovation into being, provides many opportunities for them to mix, learn, and share experiences.
The model considers two types of Security: external and internal. External security is situational and is derived from being around others. Scientists lacking in situational security would stay on the beaten path and would be productive but not creative. People want to feel safe bringing ideas forward in a team environment and this is tied to participation in team efforts. Internal security is a function of individual self-confidence, another of the expanding forces, and will be influenced by the situational environment.
Self-Confidence is a form of internal security. Individuals must feel that their ideas have merit and are worthy of being considered by the team. The team can reinforce this by maintaining practices which evaluate ideas at the appropriate time and not at the time they are suggested. This links to the external (situational) form of security previously discussed. Research has shown that continued achievement over a technical professional’s career depends on high self-confidence. This is demonstrated by the individuals’ willingness to take risks and rely on their own judgment.
Training encompasses both technical and non-technical education. Keeping current with technology is a key source of ideas and is a means of absorbing stimulus from the environment. Non-technical training in the areas of team-building, group processes, and creative problem-solving are necessary, however, for the team to develop the process awareness that is perhaps the most important aspect of team operation. Without process awareness, group efforts at creation will be stymied, and teams will be unable to fulfill their missions effectively.
Setting Clear Goals is a way to ensure that the team is attempting to solve the right problem, and this sense of direction will help the team to avoid the groupthink pitfall. This also serves to focus and make room for both individual and team efforts at creative activity, as expectations are now defined. Ensuring goals are within the grasp of team members is a way of reducing stress so that team members can direct their energies to the task at hand.
Communication serves many purposes. It allows team members to define their roles and, in an project environment consisting of many teams, it allows teams to understand each other’s roles. Communication is critical to the personal interaction process that spawns new ideas, as it allows ideas to be shared, explored, and evaluated. It also allows the team to sell its ideas and end products to the organization’s management and to the customer.
Trust results from resolving issues of context between team members; it enables team members to share ideas freely. Tust enables individuals to take chances and seek out new opportunities. It allows failure to be instructive. It also allows team members to give each other useful feedback about their performance and the effectiveness of their communication. These are actions that support creativity and innovation. Trust is an on-going process and team leaders need to expend the effort to maintain trust on the team once it has been established.
Motivation – Properly motivated, technical professionals will contribute to team efforts. Pelz and Andrews identified self-reliance as the essential core of motivation for technical professionals.2 They also found that those individuals who relied on intrinsic sources of motivation were more effective than those who relied on the group leader’s ideas for stimulation. This inner motivation is closely tied to the self-confidence necessary to prolong individual achievement over an individual’s scientific career. Job satisfaction is a key component to motivation and team leaders must consider how self-esteem, self-determination, self-expression, belonging, security, and growth opportunities play into team member motivation.
Team Norms and Processes which are supportive of the innovation process will stimulate and sustain the expanding forces, subsequently increasing the size of the creative space. The methods teams use to interact, set goals, solve problems, and generate and evaluate ideas will affect team members’ willingness to participate in team efforts. Both team leaders and members share the responsibility for establishing the norms and processes the team will use, and everyone will receive benefit for attending to this in the early stages of the team’s development.
The constraining forces are those elements which act to confine or, in some instances, shrink the size of the creative space that teams of technical professionals work within. The constraining forces primarily lie outside the boundaries of the team and, thus, are usually outside the control of the team. However, they are often within the control of corporate management. The constraining forces are real and necessary and are driven by such things as market conditions, the economy (local, national, or international as the case may be), technology, the customer base, competition, and the personal beliefs and attitudes of top management.
Organizational Culture – The beliefs and attitudes of corporate leaders will ultimately manifest themselves in the organizational structure and its culture. Organizational culture is composed of the dimensions of authority, values, norms, rewards, and sanctions, which serve to define part of the environment in which the team must operate. Corporate policies and practices embody these cultural dimensions, and corporate leaders are advised to design them to support creativity and innovation. Those that do not will adversely affect the teams attempting to operate in the culture and will constrain their creative efforts.
Management Support is usually a direct result of organizational culture and the way corporate policies and practices are designed. Management support is involved with supplying resources (computers, software, facilities) to the team, assigning personnel to projects, and making expertise available. Management support is also described by the character of the support, such as the level of commitment to team efforts, the amount of assistance made available, and the willingness to help with as well as interfere with team operation.
Technical Parameters such as performance specifications, unit production costs, or physical configuration envelopes (size, shape, weight), are constraints which may be necessary for the end product to be useful to its customers and will thus serve to help focus team efforts. Company standards (documentation, test methods) will be in effect here too, and will influence how the technical parameters are met and verified. This can be a constraining force because it puts boundaries on the team’s creativity.
Available Funding is another constraining force that acts on the creative space. Funding levels available to the team limit what can be done, which technologies can be tried, the number of resources that can be accessed, and the number of designs that can be evaluated. It also limits the number of ideas a team can explore. Funding limitations may be market-driven or dictated by corporate needs and philosophies. The amount of funding available determines the extent to which team efforts are constrained, given the mission involved. Sufficient funding levels will enable creativity as more options are available to the team. Insufficient levels may stimulate teams to be creative with what they have, or may inhibit team efforts entirely.
Time Pressure may be also be a creativity stimulator as well as an inhibitor. Time pressure may be manifested in the need for the team to meet a schedule. Although schedules may be self-imposed, quite often they are driven by forces outside the team, such as market windows, customer expectations, the availability of resources and personnel, and the competition. Time pressure forces teams to be creative in the time they have and can be an incentive to complete tasks. Studies have shown that schedules can enhance the output of technical professionals as long as deadlines are not out of line with expectations.
The creative space model suggests that once the defining forces come into balance, a creative space exists which is responsive to the existing conditions. As internal and external forces change over time, so will the space. We can consider the arrows which represent any of the forces to have lengths proportional to their relative strength. For instance, high levels of trust on the team will push the creative space further outward. Similarly, higher levels of management support will not confine the creative space as much as situations where management is indifferent to or working against team efforts. The bottom line is that effective leadership coupled with process awareness by both team members and team leaders are the elements which strengthen the expanding forces in the creative space and unleash the creative powers of the team.
As I have focused my research on environmental factors, I have not included behavior in the creative space model. Certainly the extents to which team member personal styles clash, member commitment to team efforts vary, or extreme levels of intellectual conflict negatively affect team performance are challenges and concerns to leaders. However, these issues are implied in the creative space model because they will manifest themselves as a lack of trust and security or in poor communications. These conditions would then be reflected in a creative space that is smaller than what it could have been without internal discord. Some of this discord is normal in the early stages of team development. Leaders can consider the individual team member desired behaviors, which promote trust and open communication, for example, and work to reinforce those in the effort to establish beneficial team norms. It is the leader’s as well as the team’s challenge to deal with these issues early on so the creative space can grow with the team.
In conclusion, both corporate leaders and team leaders have the responsibility of monitoring the defining forces identified in the creative space model and working to ensure that both organizational practices and team practices support the innovation process. In the case of self-directed teams of technical professionals, an awareness of the creative process and an understanding of the creative space model will help corporate leaders, team leaders, and team members determine the best ways to match the stages of the innovation process to the needs of their organizations.
Figure 1. The Creative Space Model
- Komen, Mark. Harmonizing Imagination: Leader Challenges in Building Creative Environments on Self-directed Work Teams of Technical Professionals. MAOL Thesis. College of St. Catherine. St. Paul, MN. 1993.
- Pelz, Donald C. and Frank M. Andrews. Scientists in Organizations: Productive Climates for Research and Development. (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1976) 109.
Printed copies of my complete thesis are available upon request
Note – this article was originally published in The Leading Edge, Vol. 3, No. 3, Aug, 1994, a publication of the College of St. Catherine., St. Paul, MN.
© 1993. Mark Komen and Kodyne, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide.