Team networks and team innovation
Team innovation, or the generation and effective implementation of new ideas in teams, is becoming increasingly crucial for managers of most organizations – especially those that heavily rely on knowledge work for the products and services they offer. Think of the development of smartphones, electric cars, or the internet. None of these products and services we take for granted today would have been possible without concerted team efforts in their respective organizations that were characterized by innovation. Naturally, team leaders working in industries that depend on team innovation are looking for ways to promote their teams’ creative and innovative potential.
Previous research and anecdotal evidence suggest that a team’s network matters for team innovation. It’s not what you do, it is who you know, right? But does this squarely apply to innovation as well? At the simplest level, team networks can be viewed as either the strength of members’ internal relationships, also called team bonding social capital, or the reach of a team’s external relationships, termed team bridging social capital.
Team’s network matters for team innovation. It’s not what you do, it is who you know, right? But does this squarely apply to innovation as well?
Team conflict as a linchpin connecting team networks to team innovation
The quality of innovative feats in large part depends on the information teams have available. Typically, the more varied information teams can access, the more it promotes their innovative potential. Viewed from a network perspective, having more varied external networks (i.e., team bridging social capital) should be more beneficial for innovation than stronger team-internal bonds (i.e., team bonding social capital). That’s the theory. Research evidence from various studies, however, showed that either 1) both bridging and bonding social capital promote innovation, 2) neither bridging and bonding social capital promote innovation, or even that 3) both bridging and bonding social capital hamper innovation. Thus, the evidence on how team networks affect team innovation was inconsistent and did not lend itself to formulating straightforward practical recommendations.
The quality of innovative feats in large part depends on the information teams have available.
My work, recently published in Human Relations and in collaboration with Amer Ali Al-Atwi and David de Cremer, suggests that in addition to having varied informational resources available, two things matter when it comes to promoting team innovation through networks.
First, it matters how the information gathered through networks is applied and implemented in teams. Oftentimes, promoting new information, such as best practices from other teams among one’s own team members, is not met with openness but with skepticism that can undermine team innovation efforts in the long run. So, the way team members resolve such initial disagreements has crucial implications for their innovative potential. The literature on team conflict suggests that disagreeing on task content-related matters can lead to more innovative solutions, thus proposing task conflict a functional team conflict process. Apart from task conflict, teams can make disagreements personal (i.e., relationship conflict) or disagree on task coordination-related disputes (i.e., process conflict), both of which slow down team progress and are thus deemed dysfunctional conflict processes. In our work, we looked at whether task conflict proportional to the other two conflict types (i.e., relationship and process conflict), termed proportional task conflict (abbreviated as PTC), can explain how information gathered from networks is applied in teams, thus influencing innovation. The idea is that if teams engage in more task conflict proportional to relationship and process conflict, this should be experienced as a functional team conflict process and promote innovation. Our results showed that although PTC promoted team innovation as expected, both strong internal networks (i.e., team bonding social capital) and varied external networks (i.e., team bridging social capital) undermine PTC, and thus, hamper team innovation.
Promoting new information, such as best practices from other teams among one’s own team members, is not met with openness but with skepticism that can undermine team innovation efforts in the long run.
Team leadership as a regulator of team network effects
The negative effects of team networks on team innovation are not unexpected. There can indeed be problems with information that is concentrated inside teams (i.e., team bonding social capital) or that is brought in from external sources (i.e., team bridging social capital). Highly concentrated team-internal information is most likely very similar and thus redundant and unlikely to benefit innovative efforts. Conversely, information brought in from outside the team is rarely immediately accepted even if it would promote team innovation. The second aim of our work was thus to highlight that team leadership matters for regulating team efforts. We argue that certain leader behaviors should be able to avoid the potentially negative aspects of teamwork. Our findings suggest that team leaders that motivate members to work together and who lead by example can avoid dysfunctional team conflict spirals and their negative impact on team innovation. Additionally, team leaders that intellectually engage with their members ideas and are more people-oriented in their leadership were found to directly promote innovation via fostering PTC.
Team leaders that motivate members to work together and who lead by example can avoid dysfunctional team conflict spirals and their negative impact on team innovation.
Practitioner takeaways from our work
My collaborators and I propose the following two takeaways for managers and practitioners wanting to promote team innovation.
- Our research suggests that team networks themselves are not a catalyst for team innovation. In fact, in the absence of team leadership they can do more harm than good by making dysfunctional team conflict (i.e., relationship and process conflict) more likely. At the same time, we highlight that certain types of team conflict can be good for team innovation, specifically those where functional team conflict (i.e., task conflict) outweighs dysfunctional team conflict.
- Team leadership is crucial for team innovation. Leaders who are able to regulate the information flow from team-external sources and enable knowledge integration in teams play a key role in ensuring that their teams continue to be innovative.
Taken together, the thing with networks is that it is not only who you know, but also what you do, and how you are led that will determine your team’s innovative potential.