It’s a cold and windy February morning. You’ve just dropped your kids off at school, and are now walking into your new office on the first day of your new role as the manager of a marketing team at the international telecommunications company you’ve been working for over the past decade. You were previously a manager in the Human Resources department and were moved to the Marketing department after the firing of its previous manager. The department had been leading mediocre campaigns over the past two years, and even after hiring multiple new team members with stellar credentials, all of the new projects that the team has put out have similarly fallen flat. They’ve all been dull, uninspired, and unoriginal. The company was mystified and decided that perhaps it was the lack of effective leadership that was the issue. You had been leading one of the most admired HR teams in the company’s history in your previous position, and the company decided that it was your kind of effective leadership that was needed in its failing marketing department.

You’re worried. You’ve always been told that you have a knack for managing people, and it has always been easy for you. The issue is that you’ve never managed a bunch of creatives. The company has made it clear that it wants the marketing team to begin creating groundbreaking, original and memorable campaigns, and that they have faith that you’d be able to manage the team in a way that brings out their creativity. The stakes are high, though…you know your reputation in the company is dependent on your ability to turn the marketing department around.

So what do you do? How exactly do you build the team in a way that brings out its creativity?

Fortunately, researchers have been asking this exact question for the past three decades, and the hundreds of studies that have been conducted so far have revealed some surprising and useful insights.

In 2009, three researchers from the Netherlands and Spain conducted a statistical review of 104 of these studies to pinpoint exactly which team characteristics best predict team creativity. The portrait that the data paints is fascinating.

Of the numerous variables that were examined in the research, including factors such as team size, diversity, and conflict, the variable that emerged as having the strongest connection to team creativity was actually vision. In other words, to build a highly creative team, the data suggests that the most important characteristic to instill in the team is a sense of clarity regarding what the ultimate goal of the project is. The more committed a team is to that goal, and the more motivated team members are to attain it, the more likely creativity will emerge.

The second major characteristic that researchers have identified as a predictor of team creativity is a construct that the researchers call “external communication”. Essentially, they suggest that having team members regularly communicate with people outside of their own team or organization increases the likelihood that they’ll obtain new knowledge and see new perspectives, which can then be a catalyst for the development of novel and creative ideas. It’s why large-scale, multi-departmental team building programs can be so impactful. By giving participants a chance to build relationships with members of other teams and departments, we empower team members to share knowledge, perspectives, and ideas across teams – a critical source of creativity.

Whether there’s support for innovation within a team also significantly influences its level of creativity. This one’s pretty intuitive – the more team members are encouraged and expected to introduce new and innovative ideas when working with the team, the more they’ll actually produce creative solutions. What’s more noteworthy, though, is that this characteristic only came in third among the characteristics that predict team creativity – it seems as if vision and external communication are even more significant predictors of team creativity.

Creative teams also have a climate of excellence, where team members have a shared concern with the quality of their work, and whether the team is attaining their goals in a way that demonstrates excellence. The more your team cares about their work and hold each other accountable to excellence, the more likely they’ll produce creativity.

Finally, internal communication, which describes whether there’s regular, high-quality communication between team members, is another major characteristic of highly creative teams. Though unsurprising, researchers encourage leaders to create an environment where team members are able to regularly share knowledge, experience, and ideas. The more they share, the more they’re able to be creative.

In summary of their findings, the researchers encourage team leaders to “constantly strive to provide their teams with clearly stated, visionary, and motivating higher-order goals, provide high norms and support for innovative endeavors, enhance commitment to excellence by encouraging them to mutually monitor each other’s performance and engage in constructive feedback…[and] maintain social relationships with people outside of their core work team” (p. 1139).

While these findings aren’t entirely surprising, they’re powerful because they allow us to pinpoint exactly which characteristics we need to focus on when we’re trying to build a highly creative team. Instead of spending our time worrying about the composition of our team (which the data show are less predictive of levels of creativity), we’d be wise to focus on giving our team a strong vision, encouraging them to communicate with both others within the team and those outside of it, and creating a culture that supports innovation and encourages excellence.

At the end of the day, it comes down to culture. It’s not always just about who’s in the team – the norms and commonly held beliefs within the team are equally, if not more, important. Check out our Organizational Culture Development workshop to assess and elevate your team’s culture to a place where they can realize their ability to be creative.

Communication is another key predictor of creativity, as you’ve read above. If your team’s communication is something you need help with, our Effective Communication workshop will address this exact need.