Business school academics spend a lot of time doing statistics with the objective of trying to find the most important factors for making innovative work teams and businesses. This is hard because innovation is very rarely caused by one thing and sometimes what is causing innovation in one group will inhibit innovation in another. For example, workplace stress could be a motivator or barrier for innovation, depending on the specific context of the group.
Given this high level of variation, finding a team factor that correlates with innovation across multiple studies of different organizations and contexts is always going to be a challenge. However, there is one aspect of highly performing teams that has been long-recognized as having a close relationship with successful innovation outcomes.
The psychologists call this team process ‘reflexivity’. As Michael West from the Aston Business School explains, reflexivity is:
the extent to which team members collectively reflect upon the team’s objectives, strategies and processes as well as their wider organizations and environments, and adapt them accordingly
In other words, it is the capacity to stop, think and ask questions and then modify the next course of action.
I remember hearing West speaking about reflexivity at a conference many years ago and saying that no other factor such as team diversity, experience or cooperation was as good as predicting innovation success. You can listen to him explaining the concept and the evidence in a podcast from Aston Business School here. I like his example of the team handling product complaints because the intial focus on being very efficient made the team members work harder without actually solving the problem. Groups have a surprising capacity to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.
Given the amount of money that gets spent on collaboration technologies and team development to make groups more innovative, being disciplined about stopping and thinking might have the best ROI of anything you are likely to invest in.