Leigh Thompson: An interview by Bob Morris

Thompson, LeighLeigh Thompson is the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She directs the highly successful Kellogg executive course, Leading High Impact Teams, and the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center. She also co-directs the Negotiation Strategies for Managers course. Thompson has published more than 100 research articles and has authored nine books, including The Truth About Negotiations, Making the Team, and The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator. Her latest book, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, was published by Harvard Business Review Press (January 2013).

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Morris: Before discussing Creative Conspiracy, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Thompson: As strange as it sounds my husband, Robert Weeks, helped me discover some strengths I didn’t know I had. His passion for cycling led me to get on a bike so we would have something to do together. What I learned is that I actually have a lot of strength and talent in that area. From casual riding for fun, I started rigorous training to become a bike racer. That experience taught me the importance of having a goal and of being coachable. It also taught me about failure and success. I don’t think I would have written the Creative Conspiracy without his presence in my life.

Morris: Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Thompson: Two dissertation advisors: Reid Hastie (now at the University of Chicago) taught me to be extremely rigorous and mission-focused in my research. Max Bazerman (now at Harvard Business School) – introduced me to negotiation research. I had started my dissertation topic on a boring subject and changed it when I met Max. If I’m not passionate about something, it is hard for me to focus on it.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.

Thompson: When I was pursuing my PhD I thought I would spend the rest of my life as a researcher in an academic institution. However, I was lonely simply doing research for research sake. I found my true home in a business school. On the very first day while teaching MBA students and executives, I decided that I never wanted to do any research unless I could bring it into the classroom and have executives find it valuable.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Thompson: I think some people know exactly what they want to do from the time they are 10 years old. I always felt like a fraud because I don’t think I figured out what I wanted to do until I was about 35 years old. In college, I was a theater major for about a year and a half, then I changed majors and earned a major in communication studies and a minor in psychology. After that I became a marriage counselor and therapist, then I became a social psychologist, and finally when I was about 35 it all came together. But when I look back, having training on the stage helps me in the classroom, having performed marriage counseling helps me works with people and understand interpersonal dynamics, and being a researcher helps me too. All these false starts have shaped what I’m most passionate about doing now.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Creative Conspiracy. When and why did you decide to write it?

Thompson: When I was in the classroom and working with companies, I realized that they often operated under well-intentioned, but largely faulty assumptions. In fact, the scientific evidence on creativity is not well known by companies. So, a lot of what companies were doing was completely contrary to a lot of the research studies. I didn’t feel comfortable asking my students and clients to go and read 250 management science and psychological science articles, so I wanted to put all of this research together in an easy to read format. My goal was to collect all this information and build a framework that was actionable.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Thompson: The key conversation stopper in all of my lectures and teaching on creativity is that teams are distinctively less creative than individuals. Another head-snapping revelation is that focusing on quantity is a much better key to creative success than focusing on quality. Just by stating these two facts, I can almost cause a revolt. In Chapter 2, I provide a quiz where people can access whether they are operating under myth or actual fact. And the rest of the book provides a step-by-step guide on what leaders can do to be more creative.

Morris: Many (if not most) people assign negative connotations to the word “conspiracy.” How do you define the word and, in your opinion, what are the defining characteristics of a conspiracy that is creative?

Thompson: A creative conspiracy is below radar behavior and stage setting by teams in order to think about new possibilities and question assumptions. Conspiracy can have a negative connotation, and I wanted to come up with a title that would signal the fact that sometimes creative stage setting is at odds with traditional organizational expectations In certain sections of the book I discuss creative deviance, where teams actually defy what superiors and managers are asking them to do all in the name of questioning assumptions and coming up with new breakthroughs.

Morris: How best do you determine whether or not collaboration is authentic?

Thompson: Teams, and in particular creative teams, should be the exception rather than the rule. Don’t form a team if an individual can accomplish the work. So many organizations form teams when an individual can do the job. Collaboration is authentic when team members cannot possibly accomplish the goal individually. When they are completely dependent on one another, they are a real team. Whether they will succeed is another question.

Morris: Why specifically do you believe that groups are – or at least tend to be – less creative than individuals?

Thompson: There are a number of factors that create what I call a perfect storm that make groups less creative than individuals. One factor is conformity. In my book I talk about how people unconsciously as well as consciously change their behavior in a way they feel will win them acceptance in the group. This is actually a very adaptable human behavior; it’s a way of fitting in, it’s a way of not crashing into people when we are driving cars. But in a creative team, it’s the kiss of death.

Another factor is a phenomenon called free riding, which is the tendency for people working in groups to not work as hard as they would if they were individually accountable for something. In the book I discuss a phenomenon called production blocking. What production blocking refers to is that when we are in a group there a lot of things we are expected to do: we are expected to be polite, not interrupt people, some are expected to take notes, and everyone is expected to wait his or her turn to speak. All of those tasks are diminishing the ability to generate ideas.

Morris: In your opinion what are the most durable and disruptive myths about creativity. What, in fact, is true?

Thompson: I open the book by talking about the key myths of creativity. One of those we just talked about is that teams are more creative than individuals. A second myth is that by getting rid of rules, guidelines and norms, creativity can be enhanced – and that is completely false. A third myth is that striving for quality is much better than striving for quantity, when in fact the opposite is true. If we have a quality goal this stifles idea generation because people are self-censoring and afraid of suggesting ideas that don’t meet a certain standard. Yet another myth is that brainstorming teams should work very closely together and tear down boundaries and be in constant interaction. In fact, I argue that people need to work individually and independently at least some of the time for creative idea generation. Also, there is an accepted idea that being calm and relaxed and peaceful will be conductive to creativity, when in fact, a lot of research suggests that activating moods – whether joy or anger – stimulate creativity.

Morris: What are the most formable barriers (i.e. “blocks”) to creative collaboration? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Thompson: The myths we just talked about. The key to overcome the myths that lead to faulty behavior is to live and breathe the best practices to enhance creativity. Another key is to know when the team mission calls for creativity. That likely will not be true every day in an organization. Some days the goal will be to solve problems or complete other tasks which are not creative enterprises. Chapter 7 is my favorite chapter in the book, because I talk about numerous rules of brainstorming that have been scientifically proven to enhance creativity.

These include: expressiveness, focusing on quantity, staying focused on the task, not telling stories, setting clear goals, using a hybrid structure – meaning first work individually then move into groups – rotating temporary members in and out of a group, and breaking a problem down and brainstorming on individual parts. A relatively new technique is known as speed storming, where people brainstorm with another person and every few minutes shift and brainstorm with another person.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of an effective leader of a creative team?

Thompson: In Chapter 4 I talk about leading the creative team while not over managing or under leading a team, how to plan on change, and how leaders need to seek feedback. Leaders should avoid the 3 leadership traps. The power trap occurs when leaders exert too much power. The knowledge trap refers to leaders that believe they know more than others and must have the ultimate answer. A third trap is the confirmation trap where leaders decide on a particular idea and continue to seek feedback that will support their idea rather than be open to new ideas or be proven wrong.

Morris: Let’s say a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read your book and is now determined to establish a workplace within which creative conspiracy thrives. Where to begin?

Thompson: In Chapter 7 I talk about stage setting and I provide a number of scientifically supported best practices. I would not suggest a CEO put all 14 or 15 of these ideas into place, but rather introduce one every couple of weeks. This will provide an organizational laboratory to see which ones are working for this particular company. I would suggest that the CEO empower others to bring one best practice in, so everyone is taking ownership in how to set the new stage and do business while introducing change.

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For more information about Leigh Thompson’s teaching and research, please visit www.leighthompson.com.

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