The Recipe for Clever Teams: Complexity, Diversity, Cognitive Conflict and Serendipity

Gareth Jones of LBS and INSEAD can help you be smart about how to manage "clever" people. He and co-author Rob Goffee recently released Clever: Leading Your Smartest, Most Creative People in 2009. Last week, Jones and I discussed some of the landmines managers needed to avoid when working with particularly clever people. This week, we conclude our discussions by talking about how clever teams are managed.

BNET: We've talked a lot about clever individuals. What are the steps one needs to take to create the clever teams you write about in your book?

Jones: This was one of the most difficult sections of the book. Clever teams normally work on complex tasks, because if they weren't so difficult, you wouldn't need a clever team. Working on these tasks tends to produce high levels of team cohesion. Yet, when we examine these teams, we learn that they need volatility and high levels of cognitive conflict. The example we often use is the relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney in the Beatles. Also, creativity increases with diversity and declines with sameness. They need serendipity. An example we use here is Viagra, which was originally produced as a heart drug, but it had a very interesting side-effect. Finally, they need very complex interfaces. If you went to visit a pharmaceutical company like Novartis, what you would find is very complex organizational structures. Every time you try to simplify and clarify the structures, you find you can't, because the task of developing several new drugs across many disease areas...with all of the regulatory concerns...with some thought about what manufacturing and marketing might look like...this is complex stuff! You want these groups to be outward facing and interfacing with other people in your organization. All of this combines to make the ability to lead clever teams a really significant skill.

BNET: It seems that some companies get into trouble when they try to be too clever. Enron and a number of investment banks in the last few years come to mind. Do some organizations try to be too clever?

Jones: That's why we deliberately kept the title Clever, because certainly in American culture, the notion of being "clever" is a double-edged sword. When we teach this stuff, we tell people they need to learn to conform enough. If you're with Roche pharmaceuticals, for example, just remember: this is a Swiss pharmaceutical company...it has a long and rather honorably tradition. You do need to conform enough, or you'll never get organizational traction.

BNET: A few weeks ago for this blog, I interviewed an authority on using improvisation techniques in the business setting. He emphasized the importance of minimizing discord via the "yes, and" technique of brainstorming. There are a number of funky design and creative strategy consultancies which seek in large part to eliminate cognitive conflict in their problem-solving processes.

How does this jibe with your view of how clever teams operate? Do you see these improv techniques having a role in clever teams?

Jones: First of all, I am totally taken with the idea that improvisation is a key skill in clever organizations. Just before I joined the BBC years ago, I went on a one-day workshop with a guy who was a professor at the US Naval Academy and also a jazz musician. In this one-day seminar, I took 26 pages of notes. He played a very interesting little game with us. He played notes on the piano and he got people to choose their favorites. In the end, he took these six notes and said, "Give me 10 minutes and I'll improvise a song that I'll play for you." Sure enough, he came back and played some music. Then he said, "What did you hear?" One person said, "A streetcar." And the professor said, "Do you mean this?", and he played a bit of music that sounded like a streetcar. People were identifying riffs from other songs and various random sounds they could make out. The professor was reinforcing a simple point: great improvisers have got a stock of stuff in their brains. The real skill of the improviser is recombining it-and that struck me as a huge lesson for us studying innovation and creativity.