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How to Harness Individual Creativity? Foster Informal 'Hot Groups'

To direct employees' creative energies, allow them to meet and mingle. But keep it loose, as too much focus could stem the magic.
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There's no question that the strength of an organization lies with the individual--and creativity is an attribute of individual actors. But individual creativity is rarely enough.

An initial idea must be nurtured for it to grow. To reach maturity, it has to be planted in a field that can not only support the idea but also cultivate it into a full-grown product or service.

But how do you replicate that field inside your own organization? Many have tried, with only marginal success. Organizational creativity is often equated with the suggestion box, R&D arms, or skunkworks, but these aren't necessarily appropriate for small entrepreneurial organizations.

As an entrepreneurial leader, your answer to moving individual creativity to an innovation, product, or new solution is to create “hot groups.” A hot group is a small group of individuals who share the excitement and commitment for a particular idea, perspective, or product. In a hot group, individuals commit to each other over mutual emotion and excitement over an idea, rather than rational exchange and coordination.

Monet, Renoir, Manet, Bazzille, and Sissley were five painters, who separately were a soldier, factory worker, naval cadet, business student, and medical student. On the surface, they shared nothing. Together, they were a hot group.

Through this hot group, they gave the world Impressionism. In entrepreneurial organizations, with flat structures, and where zeal, agility, and creativity are demanded, the answer is not formal “teams” but rather informal groups that clump together.

The problem is that you can’t manufacture them. But you can facilitate them. Here are five ways to cultivate your company's own hot groups:

1. Search out a hot group. Find individuals with a common interest and suggest that they get together informally. Then, stand back.

2. Look the other way. When you see a group of individuals discussing ideas while sprawling on the couch, ask yourself if interrupting would stop the flow of ideas or disrupt the synergy.

3. Don’t be afraid of dreamers and wanderers. In your need to drive to the bottom line, accountability and focus may be your primary concern. But too much accountability and focus could smother the hot group.

4. Buffer the hot group. Like a seedling, a hot group sometimes has to be protected from others so that there's time for their ideas to emerge. When someone asks, “What are those characters are up to?” find a way to justify their long discussions on the couch.

5. Provide resources. Supply resources as best you can, but don’t become an ATM machine. Too much investment can staunch the flow of creativity. Scarcity, at times, can get results.

Jean Lipman-Blumen and Harold J. Leavitt, authors of Hot Groups, point out that "hot groups and teams don’t come from the same planet.” Teams, no matter how loose, are a formal part of the organizational structure. Hot groups are part and parcel of the organizational spirit and are based on interpersonal relations grounded in a passion for ideas. Teams can be lead. Hot groups must be facilitated. Like a seedling, if handled too much, it can die.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Mar 6, 2014

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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