Organizations use teams and groups to solve problems in an ever-changing environment, a challenge that requires a high degree of the elusive quality of creativity. But how does a manager actually train or enable a team to be more creative?
Linda Argote, David M. Kirr and Barbara A. Kirr Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory, and her collaborators have an answer, found in “First, Get Your Feet Wet: The Effect of Learning from Direct and Indirect Experience on Team Creativity,” published in March 2010 in the journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Argote collaborated with Francesco Gino (University of North Carolina), Ella Miron-Spektor (Bar-Ilan University) and Gergana Todorova (Tepper Ph.D.).
“Our goal was to investigate the effects of learning from different types of prior experience, direct and indirect, on creativity,” says Argote. The researchers placed volunteers in three-person teams and evaluated their efforts in collaboratively creating origami products. Some teams were trained and practiced making a related project, others watched a video of another team making the related project, and some teams were given no training at all.
“We found that teams that experienced direct learning performed more creatively than those who simply watched the video, and that these effects persisted over time,” says Argote. “We found that it is the development of transactive memory systems (TMS) among team members that explains this difference.” Transactive memory is defined as the cooperative division of labor of learning, communicating and remembering team knowledge. The development of TMS allows team members to create a common knowledge base of skills and expertise—elements that are important antecedents of creativity.
“We showed that vicarious learning, while better than no training at all, does not enable teams to be as creative as teams that learn from their own experience. Simply imitating a creatively-related process does not allow a team to ‘catch up’ with the team that developed the processes from its own experience.”
Argote adds that the findings have important practical implications for managers. “Leaders may benefit from composing teams based on the type of task experience that members have acquired in the past and from providing teams opportunities to work directly together so that they develop transactive memory systems. Choices made at the time of assembling a team may indeed be an important variable under a manager’s control that can boost creative performance.”