Team Selection Protocol: Challenge Yourself

Imagine that you are a manager who needs to assemble a team for a six-month, highly challenging project, requiring innovative thinking. The situation is hypothetical, so technical skills are not relevant – you can select your “dream team.” Take a minute to jot down four or five names of people you’d feel inclined to include.  Now, look at your list.

Who did you choose? Did you select folks just like yourself, or people that are fairly different? Given that it’s a demanding, long-term assignment, you might want to know what to expect from your teammates, rather than face potential unknown challenges. Do you think that you’ll be more productive working with people that share your ways of thinking?

Our natural attraction to individuals with similar backgrounds to our own has been widely researched since ancient times. Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, Poetic and Nicomachean Ethics, has noted that people “commiserate those who are similar to themselves in age, in manners, in habits, in dignities, and in birth,” and you can also find in Plato’s Phaedrus that “similarity begets friendship.” In the modern era, the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people (a.k.a. the principle of homophily, or “love of the same”), has been analyzed in a vast array of research studies both on the personal and organizational levels. McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Cook, in their article Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks, have conducted an extensive review of various dimensions of homophily, using the definitions offered by Lazarsfeld and Merton back in 1954: status homophily, in which similarity is based on informal, formal, or ascribed status, and value homophily, which is based on values, attitudes, and beliefs. They have also explored the sources of homophily, such as geography, family ties and organizational foci, suggesting that homophily limits people’s social worlds in a way that has powerful implications for the information they receive, the attitudes they form, and the interactions they experience.

So, is homophily stifling your group’s creativity?  Several studies suggest that heterogeneous (or mixed) groups tend to outperform homogeneous (or a similar) groups in terms of generating more and higher quality ideas, identifying problem perspectives, and generating solution alternatives. Yet, we still tend to surround ourselves with people just like us…

You have a choice: create teams that feel good, or teams that push boundaries.  It’s tough to do both at the same time.

Getting out of your comfort zone by choosing people that are vastly different in their beliefs, cultural values and experience for your team may feel unnatural. The rational part of you will immediately come up with hundreds of reasons why it is not feasible. But will you really be able to maximize your ability to come up with creative solutions in a team full of your clones? Will you have enough energy without the dynamic opposition afforded by people that question your beliefs and actions from different, and sometimes completely unexpected, angles?

While it is easy for me to suggest surrounding yourself with people that are different, it is not easy to change our natural inclination to seek out similarity. The process starts with self-discovery, with moving away from the unconscious urge to seek for likeness to the conscious acceptance of dissimilarity, finding a right balance between your natural desires and pushing yourself not to be afraid of facing challenges.  Look for team members among people that are multidimensional and cross-trained in different areas. These folks possess so called ‘associative fluency,’ a quality that allows them to make connections about ideas and applications, rather than “tunneling” into specific domains when a wider view is needed. Be a good listener and don’t be afraid to put yourself into your opponent’s shoes – it will greatly increase your own level of multidimensional thinking, ease up your process of welcoming dissimilarity, and open the doors to generating more creative solutions.

References:

Janssens, M., Brett, J.M. (2006). Cultural Intelligence in Global Teams: A Fusion Model of Collaboration. Group & Organization Management, Vol. 31, No. 1, 124-153
Lazarsfeld, P., and R. K. Merton. (1954). Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis. In Freedom and Control in Modern Society, Morroe Berger, Theodore Abel, and Charles H. Page, eds. New York: Van Nostrand, 18-66.
McPherson, M., L. Smith-Lovin, and J. Cook. (2001). Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks. Annual Review of Sociology. 27: 415-44.
O’Connor, G.C., McDermott, C.M. (2004) The human side of radical innovation,  Journal of Engineering  and Technology Management, 21: 11–30

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