Group Coherence for Project Teams – Group Creativity


Creative achievement is typically associated with individual effort. Think of Newton, Edison, or Leonardo Da Vinci. Until not very long ago, creativity and design were the focus of a few, while the work of the masses was broken down into repeatable steps. Creativity was perceived to undermine the result of mass-production. Today, the work depends on the design and creative skills of the knowledge workers that perform it

Creative achievement is typically associated with individual effort. Think of Newton, Edison, or Leonardo Da Vinci. Until not very long ago, creativity and design were the focus of a few, while the work of the masses was broken down into repeatable steps. Creativity was perceived to undermine the result of mass-production.

Today, the work depends on the design and creative skills of the knowledge workers that perform it. In this post, we explore the different ways in which Agile methods foster individual creativity and allow for something far less commonly acknowledged: group creativity. We discuss four attenuators and five amplifiers of group creative activity.

Sutherland, 2007 , p12

"[Scrum's] focus on building communities of stakeholders, encouraging a better life for developers, and delivering extreme business value to customers can release creativity and team spirit in practitioners and make the world a better place to live and work."

Individual and Group Creativity
Common definitions of creativity involve generating new ideas from a mixture of existing ones and some magic which can take many forms including inspiration, insight, serendipity or genius to name a few.

The Group Coherence Cooperative Inquiry (GCCI), Joanna's doctoral research group, identified Relationship between Individual and Shared Creativity as one of five key ingredients of Group Coherence. They defined creativity as "the ability to accept change and remain in constant relationship with it, to respond inventively to situations beyond former concepts to result in new ways of being." (GCCI, 2007, p142.)

The GCCI agreed that group creativity involves the same process as individual creativity. In groups, the resources of each participant are potentially available. This relies on individuals offering their own creativity to the group.

"In coherent groups the interplay between individual creativity and group creativity allows the group to create together, using each member's creativity within the context of the entire group's goals." (GCCI, 2007 p144.)

Organizational Attenuators of Creativity
We would like to draw attention to four specific influences that block both group and individual creativity:

1. Specialization "blinders".

"Creativity [is] the process of having original ideas that have value, [and] more often than not comes about through the interaction of different disciplinary ways of seeing things."

Sir Ken Robinson, TED2006

In contrast, our formal training and education emphasize individual achievement and rewards. We learn to specialize in few or perhaps just one discipline, excluding anything that we perceive as "not our path." Specialization "blinders" can limit creative input by individuals and constrain the universe of problems they can perceive.

This is further extended in a workplace where teams and departments work as silos and success is defined in terms of their function or discipline. Such teams optimize for avoiding blame and don't perceive the contribution of other groups to the organizational goals (see Group Coherence for Project teams - Common Purpose ). These are team specialization "blinders" that prevent participation in a group creative process involving disciplines that we are told are "not our job".

2. Micromanagement

Micromanagers feel as if they are maximizing productivity by attempting to control group activities and time . Decisions are limited to their personal creative input and the team's interdisciplinary knowledge is ignored. Such a management style conditions the team to do only exactly as they are instructed and discard their own group creative process as "not our orders".

Micromanagement overrides most feedback loops by closely directing the actions for the group and its individual members. Spontaneous experimentation and creativity are squelched by preventing team interactions. This forced control communicates lack of trust in the team to choose its next step and derails the team's self-organization. Team bonding is also prevented since most of the team's interactions are funneled through and orchestrated by one individual. The GCCI found that Bonding and Trust (both ingredients of Group Coherence) were foundations of creativity that freed group members to offer their ideas and made the group receptive to everyone's contributions.

3. Chaos avoidance

Group creativity opens the door to change and makes it possible to challenge old ways of doing things. This creates resistance, frustration and disappointment based on fear of change, uncertainty and chaos.

4. Pre-determined truth

Some organizations manage uncertainty by conducting "big planning up-front". This creates the perception of predictability at the expense of adaptability. It also documents "due diligence" to justify a desired return-on-investment. Curiously, these organizations often "forget" to check whether the predicted ROI was ever realized. A heavy front-loaded planning process compromises creativity by denying feedback loops and imposing a rigid pre-determined path.

In all these cases, "tried and true" industrial age management methods demand that the project team adheres to artificial functional boundaries and a predetermined rigid plan, imposing obstacles to the creative process.

Group creativity allows solutions to emerge in the same unpredictable way that evolution provides complex creative solutions to ecological natural situations. This allows the team to select from a wide solution set. All of the above restrictive behaviors limit the solution set and prevent this from happening.

The Creative Team
Agile teams make use of the group creativity described by the GCCI. They have a common goal that is reinforced, adapted to change and discussed on a daily basis. Specific collaborative methods such as pair programming bring together the diverse experience and wisdom available in the group. Each individual can see the group's goal from his or her own perspective. Allowing experimentation by the group makes it possible to combine members' perspectives. By encouraging interdisciplinary thinking and a cross-functional (heterogeneous) team Agile makes a potentially wider solution set available.

There are strong indicators of group creativity in hyper-productive Agile teams. Shared goal and clear definition of done are common to all team members, removing specialization "blinders" (1). Self-organization and continuous improvement empower the team to make decisions by consensus. The short feedback loops on the activities of an Agile team are a fertile ground for feeding the group's natural creativity. The fundamentally high-trust approach in Agile fosters team bonding, trust and respect. This frees everyone in the group to offer their ideas and also allows everyone to be able to utilize all the ideas (2). Agile teams welcome change, even in the advanced stages of the project They also tolerate chaos and positive disruption in the pursuit of continuous improvement (3). They focus on adapting to change and uncertainty and deliver value in short incremental deliveries thus following a dynamic and flexible path (4). Group Coherence for Project teams - Common Purpose ). It promotes creativity in the group, both for the individual members and for the group itself, because it creates awareness of differences and changes in the repeated experience of the group members. If you want your teams to be creative, provide them the creative challenges and the opportunities to discover how to solve them as a team.

When the restrictions are released, leaps of faith and leaps of creativity are incorporated. Specializations are made available to the team, not used to define boundaries. The daily standup is not a mechanical status report but an informative dialogue amongst peers, triggering a flurry of collaborative and creative activity immediately afterwards. The retrospective is not just a time to reflect on the past but an opportunity to invent new ways of doing things. Pair Programming gives way to "Team Programming", where the entire project team values the creative power and productivity of cross-functional pairing and whole-team ownership of the result.

It is harder for a low-trust or high-control organization to attempt an Agile rollout. Such organizations limit creativity, perpetuating their predicament. Ironically, they may stand to gain the most from the change.

Supporting the Creative Team (aka Amplifiers)
Drawing from the Group Coherence research and our own experience, we would like to offer five suggestions for enabling and supporting group creativity:

1. Create Opportunities for Practice

Practice is an ingredient of Group Coherence (see

2. Reward Teams

Group creativity cannot emerge in an environment where only individuals are measured and rewarded. This prevents individuals from making their specializations available to the group creative process. Also, rewarding functionally aligned teams perpetuates the silo mentality. Cross-functional successes should be celebrated and rewarded in such a way that the individual members derive their success from group achievement.

3. Tolerate Chaos

A team that accepts chaos makes itself vulnerable to discover its weaknesses. An example of this is to invite other teams to observe and evaluate the team's processes and performance. This requires willingness to learn and adapt as well as to be prepared to be wrong.

Being Agile means being adaptable to change so accepting chaos means you are receptive to the benefits of Agile.

4. Socratic questioning

The role of the Agile manager in the context of a self-organized team is very different from policing adherence to the plan or micromanaging each step every team member is allowed to take. The most valuable contributions are those that foster the creativity of the team.

"In Scrum, [managers] replace the time they previously spent "playing nanny" (assigning tasks, getting status reports, and other forms of micromanagement) with more time "playing guru" (mentoring, coaching, playing devil's advocate, helping remove obstacles, helping problem-solve, providing creative input, and guiding the skills development of team members). In making this shift, managers may need to evolve their management style; for example, using Socratic questioning to help the team discover the solution to a problem, rather than simply deciding a solution and assigning it to the team."

Sutherland, 2007 , p23

5. Shared Leadership

Creativity accompanies self-organization and both are processes the group must be allowed to discover, not be directed to. Managers are welcome to contribute ideas in a participatory, not directive manner, to encourage the group to find its own self-organization.

Sharing leadership means allowing the group to own decisions and processes normally expected of managers. Team management of the burndown chart or the communication with users, are two examples.

Group processes and their benefits are invisible to us because we are not trained to detect them. We silo our departments, our teams and even ourselves looking for unique identity at the expense of the group, its creativity and its full potential.

However, when team members perceive group creativity they describe excitement, circumlocution, emphatic statements and signals with change and movement. Their sense of participation in a creative process fuels cooperation and trust that fosters continued creativity and Group Coherence.

In hyper-productive teams there are high levels of group creativity despite functional specialization. These are groups that are willing and allowed to experiment. Group Coherence can help understand the ingredients that can be observed when this happens. In the research these includeTrust and Respect, Bonding, Loosening Boundaries, Shared Leadership, Agreement on a Shared Goal and Tolerance for Chaos. These formed the basis for this post. They cannot guarantee an earlier or more dynamic occurrence of group creativity, but their absence can prevent or delay its emergence.

They are also all available to Agile teams.

About the Author
Joanna Zweig holds a Ph.D. in Integral Studies with an emphasis on Learning and Change in Human Systems (how groups learn and Change) from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California and a Project management Institute (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Her research on Group Coherence was motivated by her practical experience in two collaborative professional fields where groups exceeded expectations and experienced enormous energy and success in their goals.

César Idrovo created his first hyper-productive team at JPMorgan London during 2000, in response to strong demand for his own work. He recruited a highly heterogeneous group and implemented “continuous collaboration” to achieve high team cohesion and tangible results. In several instances, his team’s tactical solutions were adopted as strategic implementations and are still in use today.

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.