Communication: A must-have to get Innovation from Teamwork

Last month, both the New York Times Magazine and Quartz published articles regarding the recent findings of a Google study: That it pays to be nice to our teammates. Yes, it turns-out our friends at Sesame Street were right: Cooperation really does make it happen.

Both sources linked to a Ted Talk given by an old friend of ours, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, whose own research has led her to similar discoveries about teamwork. In the talk, she says that, when working in teams, “Every time we withhold (a question, concern, or idea), we rob ourselves and our colleagues of small amounts of learning — and we don’t innovate”.

Did you catch that last bit?! It was pretty important. Her study revealed that when we don’t communicate, “we don’t innovate”. So, her research in this case focuses around creating a comfortable work environment, or as she calls it, a “psychologically safe” workplace where everyone on the team has a voice.

Of course, us green building industry folks have known about this for years – we call it “integrative design”, and it’s even been outlined by the United States Green Building Council as a possible credit toward the most up-to-date LEED certification.

In reading these articles and watching Amy’s Ted Talk, I couldn’t help but hear echoes from our 2013 interview with Architect, Bill Reed, another friend and iLiv advisor. Bill’s work with teams has given him superstar status on the green building circuit, and it’s no surprise that he and Amy’s work has brought them to similar conclusions. Back then, Bill told us, among other things, that we must be “co-learners” instead of “experts”. He said that “mutual learning” is imperative to a systems approach, and that it is necessary in order to find deep synergies — and to be truly innovative in teams.

Innovation is important. And it turns out that in teams, and on projects with lots of uncertainty, innovation won’t happen unless we’re nice and respectful of each other. We’ve got to learn to work well together, and that means communicating well together.

As a frequent collaborator and team leader, myself, I find this really interesting. And so, I plan to spend some time in the coming months looking deeper into how it is that we can get the most creativity from individuals on our teams. And, since we humans always want to improve, I will also look into how it is that we can ensure that individuals on our teams get the most out of our projects for themselves.

Can you think of a time on a team when you wanted to ask a question, or had a certain concern, or an idea, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to stand-up and voice it? I sure can. Please share your experiences in the comments section – Amy’s work tells us that sharing these stories (“acknowledging your own fallibility”) is a building block of psychological safety, after all. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to opening-up and learning more about the world’s latest, greatest, approaches to teamwork, communication, and innovation.