Heterogeneous groups reign

The debate among top management still persists. How does one balance an innovative team and avoid groupthink?

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Identifying the optimal composition of project groups in innovation processes is a critical task for management. The professional and socio-cultural homogeneity of group members is of prime importance when evaluating group composition, but opinion is divided on optimal group composition based on these factors alone. Two diametrically opposed innovation management camps exist: one favours heterogeneous groups, the other their homogenous counterparts.

Proponents of heterogeneous groups believe that their diversity promotes a corresponding diversity of perspective, and that differing perspectives, exchanged within the group, foster innovation.

Those who favour group homogeneity think that homogenous groups are more suitable environments in which to promote innovation, because similar people are highly likely to ‘think along the same lines’. Homogeneity also minimises conflict within the group, and fosters the trust of group bonding that makes for an intimate exchange of ideas.

In spite of numerous studies and strongly held, diametrically opposed views, no definitive evidence exists that favours one method over the other. However, evidence strongly suggests that heterogeneous groups are better at conceiving new ideas, while homogenous groups are better at formulating the best practical methods for their implementation.

Managers can utilise the differing strengths that each group-type can bring to the groupthink table, by ensuring that group composition mirrors group objective: groups whose primary objective is the creation of new ideas and products should be heterogeneous, while those tasked with effectively implementing such ideas and products should be homogenous. Heterogeneous groups should therefore be employed during the early stages of the production process, their homogenous counterparts in the later stages, involving product development and production. Taken to its extreme, it is even possible for managers to separate spatially the two types of group, by utilising physically different locations for their development and production facilities.

The argument over whether heterogeneous or homogeneous groups provide the better environment for promoting innovation must also be viewed by innovation managers in the context of whether a group itself is the best environment in which to foster the creation of new ideas.

The dreaded ‘groupthink’ whereby group members fail to assert their individuality for fear of going against the majority opinion within the group, constitutes a serious threat to innovation, as it has the potential to stifle the highly-creative individual’s growth, as he prioritises group loyalty over airing his own, differing but ingenious, views.

For the highly creative introvert, the group is perhaps not the best environment in which to hone ideas. Sir Isaac Newton is a prime example of such a creative talent, whose definitive inspirational moments occurred during periods of self-imposed solitude. Described by William Wordsworth as “a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone”, Newton might never have noticed the iconic apple fall to the ground, had he been distracted by lively group interactions at the time.

While groups are undoubtedly a crucial resource tool in innovation management, they should be utilised in the context of optimising efficacy, through ensuring group composition that accurately reflects the job the group is tasked with. Groupthink should not be regarded as an exclusive means of promoting innovation, because it may exclude the highly creative individual.