Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Harnessing thought diversity to spur innovation

Corinne Post

Researchers at Lehigh and Rutgers Universities have won a competitive National Science Foundation grant to study how “thought diversity” on cross-functional teams can be harnessed to enhance innovation initiatives.

Corinne Post, assistant professor of management with Lehigh’s College of Business and Economics, and Nancy DiTomaso, professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School—Newark and New Brunswick, are serving as co-Principal Investigators. The research team includes Emilio De Lia, a Rutgers Ph.D. candidate with over 35 years of business experience in research, innovation, and team leadership.

Since 2007, researchers at the two schools have surveyed about 60 employee teams from 22 organizations, analyzing the working dynamics of those cross-functional groups. The $265,337 grant allows them to extend this research, making it among the largest—and most unique—studies in the United States to analyze the impact of team diversity, team dynamics and leadership on organizational creativity.

“Diversity in innovation teams has become unavoidable, because companies are under pressure to produce scientific discoveries that integrate knowledge from very different fields,” says Post. “But even though managers understand that they need to leverage the diversity on their teams if they want to be able to innovate, getting from diversity to innovation is still a major challenge for most of them.”

A double-edged sword

According to the researchers, thought diversity is best described as a double-edged sword. On one hand, diversity provides knowledge and perspectives that, combined in novel ways, produce innovation. But on the other hand, diversity carries within itself the seeds of conflict. In order to understand each other and hence leverage their resources, members of diverse teams need to develop a common mindset—a shared way of seeing and interpreting reality.

Paradoxically, when a common mindset develops, members stop contributing disruptive differentiated information and knowledge and are likely to rely unreflectively on the established assumptions and knowledge of that mindset.

“In order to succeed, especially in this economic environment, companies need to seek ideas that break the mold,” says Post. “Fortunately, smart companies are reluctant to cut down on R&D during a downturn, which means they put a lot of faith in innovation.”

Nancy DiTomaso

“But that also means that organizations must do a better job of using diversity,” adds DiTomaso. “When team members fail to learn from each other, there will be less innovation. And if innovation is the goal, then these working groups are falling well short of making the types of contributions of which they are capable.”

Post and DiTomaso define thought diversity as individual differences in approaching problems, creative and cultural styles, decision-making, and learning. Ultimately, the goal of their research is to establish training programs that recognize how leadership strategies within groups can bridge the contradictory effects of diversity, such that mutual learning and thought diversity are both possible within innovation teams.

Based on their work so far, the Rutgers and Lehigh researchers have identified two kinds of thought diversity that affect innovation. They also determined four critical team dynamics affecting innovation, and they’ve discovered a set of leadership skills that, when distributed among team members, considerably enhance innovation in R&D teams.

With the grant, they now have an opportunity to extend their surveys to additional organizations. They are looking for companies willing to discuss innovation, diversity, group dynamics, and leadership as part of a 30-minute online survey.

“This string of research is critical for organizations, especially as they become more global in nature. As working groups expand, there are a variety of cultural and professional challenges that too often get overlooked,” says Post. “We’re identifying a core set of behaviors that are beneficial to innovation—behaviors that will help team leaders harness their group’s diversity to spur productive creativity and innovation.”

Companies interested in participating in the national survey should contact Lehigh’s Corinne Post at (610) 758-5882 and Rutgers’ Nancy DiTomaso at ditomaso@business.rutgers.edu.

--Tom Yencho

Posted on Wednesday, May 06, 2009

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