Research shows that the idea of a “lone creative genius” is likely a myth. A single brilliant individual developing groundbreaking ideas in isolation is rare across nearly all science, technology, and business fields. In reality, exceptional creativity is usually a team sport. As a result, companies typically rely on team-based structures to unleash the full creative potential of their employees. Yet managing creative team performance also involves substantial challenges. Team creativity is a process that highly benefits from the cross-fertilization of ideas where team members build on each other’s work by reformulating, reinterpreting, and further developing others’ ideas. This process allows teams to achieve greater creative synergy—where teams can achieve more than an individual can do alone—and thus, teams can achieve higher creative performance. Yet this requires constant interaction between team members and requires a highly interdependent working style. At the same time, creativity research has shown that high autonomy is critical for creative people. Our research study (“Managing the trade-off between autonomy and task interdependence in creative teams: The role of organizational-level cultural control,” Accounting, Organizations, and Society, July 2022) shows that combining task interdependence and autonomy within creative team performance is challenging. Typically promoting one comes at the cost of undermining the other. As such, granting high autonomy to individuals while at the same time promoting an interdependent working style seems incompatible at first, but it isn’t impossible. We explore why companies that actively articulate, communicate, and disseminate shared core values at the organizational level are in a better position to combine autonomy and interdependence, thereby achieving high creativity within their project teams.
EASIER SAID THAN DONE?Take an example in the field of advertising. A creative team may consist of a copywriter, a graphic designer, and a web designer tasked with developing an advertising campaign for a client. At one extreme, the workflow for this team could be such that all three team members regularly work hand in hand throughout the entire project. In this workflow design, the graphic and web designers may regularly make writing suggestions to the copywriter, and the copywriter may regularly make suggestions on the graphic and web design components. This highly interdependent workflow inherently creates the need for ongoing interaction within the team, which may foster higher creativity through the cross-fertilization of ideas. Yet the design of this workflow also requires more frequent coordination among the three team members. On the other hand, a team’s workflow may be designed differently. The copywriter first develops a script, then the graphic designer develops designs, and lastly, the web developer implements these components. In this case, the team members don’t need consistent interdependence throughout their task. This reduced interaction lowers the need for constant coordination, which may limit the prospects for generating higher creativity through the cross-fertilization of ideas. One might be tempted to design a creative team in a highly interdependent way, since high task interdependence promises high team creativity, and then seek to overcome the challenges of higher task interdependence by installing a team leader to coordinate activities. Such a team leader could, for example, allocate tasks, set deadlines, and make decisions when a consensus can’t be reached among team members. But unfortunately, evidence from creativity research shows that creatives tend to oppose strong team leaders and, more importantly, high autonomy is perhaps their most important driver of high creativity. Consequently, a core question when designing teams for highly creative work is how to manage creative teams in a way that allows for both high interdependence and high autonomy. Since high interdependence inevitably involves a need for high coordination, if teams are to have autonomy, they must also be able to smoothly self-coordinate their highly interactive activities. To achieve high creativity in teams, projects need to be designed so that tasks are highly interdependent but teams also have the ability to self-manage without the need for a team manager because a team manager may restrict their autonomy. Of course, this is easier said than done, and the question remains about how to enable project teams to self-coordinate high task interdependence.
COMPANY CULTURE AND SELF-MANAGEMENTInterestingly, many advertising companies that are well known for their high creativity have a very strong company culture. They not only actively articulate and communicate their company values but also disseminate them through their work environment. For example, they design their workspace stylishly, offer free drinks and snacks, and cultivate rituals like team meetings over breakfast to reinforce their values of playfulness, high ambition, and nonconformity. While such a strong culture has many benefits, it also enables self-management within constantly changing project teams. Furthermore, continuously symbolizing, exemplifying, and reinforcing shared values make it more likely that even in unfamiliar situations, such as within newly formed project teams, individuals instantly have a common understanding of what they can expect from each other. Therefore, even when task interdependence is high, coordination works smoothly without requiring directives from a specific team manager. As a result, creative teams in companies with a strong corporate culture will be able to work interdependently without a substantial loss in perceived autonomy. In turn, this will help unleash such teams’ creative potential.
OUR STUDYWe collected data from more than 100 advertising teams across Europe to provide evidence that this expectation will hold systematically. We found evidence that combining high task interdependence with high autonomy of team members is, indeed, a great challenge. More specifically, we find that designing tasks in a highly interdependent way undermines the positive effect of autonomy on team creativity and vice versa. Yet we also found that teams within some companies are better able to combine high interdependence with high autonomy. When companies have a strong company culture, they’re better able to let their creative teams benefit from both high interdependence and high autonomy. These findings are echoed by creatives when asked about best practices. For instance, Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull refers to culture when asked what running a successful creative organization means. He underlines that “a hallmark of a healthy creative culture is that its people feel free to share ideas, opinions, and criticisms” and “lack of candor …ultimately leads to dysfunctional environments.” While the ability of teams to self-manage highly interdependent tasks is essential for creative teams, such self-management may also be desirable for other team types that require high interdependence and high team member autonomy. In particular, strong company culture can support smooth interactions in project teams that need to immediately function effectively.