Creative Leadership is Linked to Team Effectiveness

August 28, 2008

Researchers at Manchester Business School have established a clear link between effective leaders and their skills at encouraging creative change. They propose an explanation based on the introduction of benign structures which help shape team behaviours and innovative results

Since its inception in the 1960s, Manchester Business School has been engaged in applied studies into creativity and leadership. The School provides an unusual laboratory for studying leadership behaviours. Its approach, known as The Manchester Method, is one in which teams of business students engage with real-life business projects for an organizational client.

The Project Team Studies

Over the period 1980 to 2000, approximately 4500 participants, in 700 teams have been studied. From this work, a general principle of creative leadership emerged. Year after year, the tutors found three levels of project team performance, which they traced to a team’s leadership.

A small proportion of weak teams (‘teams from hell’) struggled to reach any effective result on the project. The majority of the teams (‘standard teams’) achieved the goals set them to the satisfaction of the client. Only a minority of teams performed beyond expectations (‘dream teams’).

What Constitutes a Dream team? Establishing Benign Structures for Change

Researchers Tudor Rickards and Susan Moger concluded that the dream teams they had observed were characterised by a capacity to go beyond the project brief in a creative way which added unexpected value for the client. They documented their findings in Handbook for Creative Team Leaders.

Later, the work was reported in several scholarly articles outlining the theory , and practical findings.

The key findings were summarized an article in The British Journal of Management

We propose that theories of project team development and of creativity can be integrated into a new conceptual framework. The framework proposes two structural barriers that bear on team performance, and modifies the well-established team development model of Tuckman. Creative leadership is suggested as an important means of breaching the barriers. Its differentiating feature seems to be its effectiveness in establishing protocols that sustain the creative efforts of team members. We have designated the protocols `benign structures’. Empirical evidence is provided from a range of studies of project teams in industrial settings.

Benign structures: An explanatory metaphor

A physiotherapist identifies that you have developed unhelpful ways of sitting in front of your computer. Your standard procedures can be improved. She suggests a series of procedures or rule you can follow to break old habits and develop ones that are more beneficial for your health.

She has introduced you to benign structures, which if you accept and follow will improve your future behaviour and health.

Benign Structures in Teams

In project teams, benign structures can again be thought of as procedures or rules introduced by the team leader. As with the structure provided by the physiotherapist, these also increase chances of improved performance and team climate or health.

How does a Leader Provide Benign Structures? The Two-Barrier Explanation

For many years, Organisational Behaviour texts describe a theory originally proposed by Bruce Tuckman, in which all teams develop progress through a series of stages labelled forming, storming, norming, and performing.

The Manchester researchers suggested a modification to this theory. They propose two barriers to team effectiveness. The first barrier defeats the poorest teams, probably at the storm stage of team development. Standard and dream teams progress beyond the first barrier but then the second barrier arrests progress of the majority of the residual teams.

The second barrier is at the norm stage of team development. Only by breaking out of its accepted norms is a team able to establish new norms. Then we have the conditions in which team is able to exceed the expectations of its corporate sponsor, but also its own assumptions about the project.

This modified theory has now been studied in Russia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Leadership, team barriers, creativity, and benign structures appear to be a universal feature of effective leadership practices. The results have been found far beyond work in the business-school projects.

Benign Structures take a team ‘Out of the Box’

It has become a business cliché to describe creativity as out-of-the-box thinking. The cliché takes on more specific meaning if we relate it to the process whereby the dream teams successfully challenged their project briefs. Their creative outputs were novel, unexpected and yet relevant.

Development of Creative Team Leaders

The studies offer ways of developing creative leaders, and supporting the production of benign structures. Within the MBA courses, various possibilities for benign structures are introduced. These include a creative problem-solving approach developed from the well-known Parnes-Osborn treatment. Another structure draws on Edward de Bono’s celebrated Lateral thinking methods, including Six Thinking Hats .

Other ways of structuring creativity include ways of dealing with unconscious rejection mechanisms towards new ideas in teams. The team leader is sensitized to the importance of developing a positive ‘Yes And’ approach to replace a negative ‘Yes But’ one.

On-going Studies (1999-2008)

A long-running project now approaching its 10th year is tracking the progress of highly successful business leaders for their creative leadership characteristics. One of the findings is the identification of a process described as Network Activation.

Conclusion

In the past, creativity may have been considered distinct from the skills needed for success as a leader. This view is likely to be revised in the future, as leaders are recognised as achieving added-value through the introduction of creativity-supporting interventions (benign structures) which help groups overcome self-limiting assumptions, in a wide range of social and economic contexts.