Tudor Rickards & Susan Moger

University of Manchester, Manchester, England


Upsalla Creativity DayKey Terms:  Creative leadership, Creativity, Leadership, Team effectiveness, Bruce Tuckman, Benign Structures, The Manchester Method, MPIA, TFI


The post is offered as an extended research communication with formal reference citations. It is based on a presentation given at The Advanced Seminar Series, University of Upsalla, Upsalla, Sweden, [3rd March, February 2009].   It extends Bruce Tuckman’s well-established stage model of team development. Creative leadership is suggested as producing new routines or protocols designated as benign structures which help teams progress through two barriers to team development. The first is at Tuckman’s storm stage, (a behavioural barrier), and the second a barrier at the norm stage (a norm-breaking barrier).

To gain an understanding of creative leadership it is helpful to examine briefly the wider fields of creativity and leadership, before addressing the specific focus of creative leadership at the level of organizational teams. Creativity and leadership have been constructs which have attracted a great deal of attention, much of which exists in relatively loosely connected bodies of work across a range of professional and scholarly domains. Creative leadership, the region of investigation common the both, is relatively unexplored.

 Multi-definitional features of  creativity and leadership

Leadership and creativity  have both been regarded as constructs suffering from inadequate definition. More precisely, each has acquired a plethora of definitions, with no unequivocally accepted one, up until present times.

Stogdill (1956) in his review of leadership, and particularly through his celebrated handbook (1974) drew attention to this embarrassment of definitional riches. This was as part of his influential attack on leadership research at the time, and the dead-end toward which he believed it was heading. Stogdill is widely accepted as changing the course of leadership research from the dominance of trait studies (Bryman, 1996; Yukl, 1999), without resolving definitional difficulties (Rickards & Clark, 2005).

Similar definitional complexities can be found in the literature of creativity. Rhodes (1961) had made an early attempt to integrate the multiple and disparate definitions in the literature, into a taxonomy based on the four components of person, process, product and press. Later, Magyari-Beck (1993) suggested that creativity as a multi-level phenomenon could be further structured into levels of individual, group, organization, and culture.

Scholarly interest has not resolved the definitional issue (Isaksen, 1987; Mackinnon, 1978; Sternberg & Lubart, 1996; Rickards, Runco & Moger, 2008). Boden (1994, 2008) has also pointed out a similar lack of clarity and an abundance of definitions of creativity.

The overlap of creativity and leadership literatures

One complication that has contributed to the definitional problems in creativity and leadership research is the wide range of professional and academic fields in which they are studied. Both concepts have attracted psychologists, social and organizational scientists, decision-theorists and educationalists. However, only a small proportion of these have shown interest in both creativity and leadership. These would include Amabile et al, (1996); Basadur, (2004); Mumford, (2000); Puccio, Murdock, & Mance, (2007); and Rickards & Moger, (1999a, 2000)

 Creative leadership is doubly difficult to characterize

Attempts to define creative leadership inevitably retain the complexities associated with the two primary concepts. Unsurprisingly, the integration of leadership and creativity into remains an important and challenging area of study.

In this contribution, we concentrate on a relatively small region of the territory, while attempting to draw a conclusion about the broader implications for creative leadership. We confine our study to leadership processes operating in project teams. If leadership and creativity are considered as overlapping domains, our territory is that of the project team leader. This draws on a sub-set in the creativity literature of work on creative problem-solving structures, (Parnes, 1992; Basadur, 2004; Isaksen, Dorval, & Treffinger, 2000, Rickards & Moger, (2000); Puccio& Capra, (2008) and in the leadership literature the sub-sets of team leadership (Ancona and Caldwell, 1992; Kimberley & Evanisko, (1981); Manz & Sims, 1992; Mumford, 2000) and facilitative and trust-based leadership (Rickards & Clark, 2007).

The conceptual basis of our two barrier theory of teamwork

‘We propose that theories of project team development and of creativity can be integrated into a new conceptual framework. The framework proposes two structural barriers that bear on team performance, and modifies the well-established team development model of Tuckman. Creative leadership is suggested as an important means of breaching the barriers. Its differentiating feature seems to be its effectiveness in establishing protocols that sustain the creative efforts of team members. We have designated the protocols ‘benign structures’ (Rickards & Moger, 2000: 273).

Background to the MBS studies of creative leadership

A major early influence on our thinking was the work in the USA on techniques for stimulating creativity in teams, reported in Parnes & Osborn, 1992; Prince (1970) and Gordon (1956, 1961). These studies had been providing evidence of numerous empirical applications of the techniques. However, claims that techniques such as brainstorming could stimulate creativity were to become contested among more reflective researchers within the creativity paradigm (See reviews by Stein, 1975; Parnes, 1992; Kurtzberg & Amabile, 2001).

The pioneering American studies attracted interest internationally. In The United Kingdom, researchers and practitioners formed informal networks, at first at a national level, and subsequently internationally (Rickards, 1993, 1994). In the UK, our studies (Rickards, 1974b, 1982) reported that application of a creativity technique helped produce experiential learning and the development of effective modifications to team behaviours or routines, a process described as creative analysis.

The term creative analysis was developed in an examination of creative problem-solving techniques. It suggested that each empirical application of a technique was a situated experience which drew on analysis of prior experiences, and provided a learning opportunity for future experiences. The work can now be seen to anticipate conceptual advances made into situated creativity (Jeffcutt & Pratt, 2002; Stoetzler & Yuval-Davis, 2002).

Early work at MBS  examined the effectiveness of teams of technical professionals seeking product innovations within an R&D department (Rickards, 1976; Rickards & Freedman, 1978). Results confirmed that application of creativity techniques could be a productive way for a team to generate promising ideas. However, we found it difficult to establish the link between the application of techniques and generation of more imaginative product ideas. That is to say, we had evidence that techniques worked ‘sometimes and somewhere’ but the mechanisms leading to enhanced creativity remained obscure.

 The Manchester Method

After the early studies of R&D project teams, our attention turned to studies of teams of business students tackling real business projects for corporate clients.   The opportunity for involvement with such teams was a consequence of taking part in an educational innovation at Manchester Business School (MBS) known as The Manchester Method (Drinkwater et al, 2004).

Each cohort provides approximately twenty teams of MBA students engaged in projects.  Across several decades, approximately 4500 participants in 700 such teams experienced creativity training as preparation for their project work .   By the late 1990s, when executive education activities were added in, ‘over 2,000 work teams from 40 different countries were involved’ (Rickards & Moger, 1999: xi).

The composition of project teams within the MBA programmes, and the activities they experienced have remained remarkably consistent across the extended time-period from the 1970s to the late 1990s (although details of the course and creativity training provided changed over time. This was consistent with the precepts of creative analysis, as learning from experience influenced later course designs.

Most projects were selected as being suitable for a small project team working over a time period of weeks. When projects were substantially larger, the work was shared across teams by splitting up a large project into sub-projects. For example, in a project for UNIDO, (Rickards, Hyde, & Papamichail, 2005), each small team explored sustainability in an industry sector. Collectively, the work produced a diagnostic tool across sectors now in use by UNIDO, for supporting the transfer of technology into its third-world sustainability projects.

From these various studies, insights emerged into the nature of team effectiveness and creative leadership. Informally at first, we also began to collect evidence in a longitudinal fashion of leadership patterns of executives engaged in innovative work (1990s-2000). They were often, but not always, sponsors of MBS projects with whom we had built longer-term relationships.

 Team development and the limitations of prevailing theories

Over time, our experiences encouraged us to seek explanations for our findings in the established theories of teamwork. However, we found difficulties reconciling our experiences with the prevailing orthodoxy of how project teams develop stable performance practices or norms.

In our teaching, as well as our research, we were aware of the influence of the work of Bruce Tuckman on teams and team development processes. According to Tuckman (1965), teams develop through stages (form, storm, norm perform). A subsequent closure or adjourn stage was added later (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977).

One difficulty for us was repeated evidence that some of the teams involved in the projects we were studying were failing pass Tuckman’s  storm stage. This might just have been explained as arising from an extended delay in some groups in passing through the Tuckman stages.  However, even if that were the case, there was another, and more serious challenge to the four stage model. A minority of the teams not only reached the norm stage but went on to challenge and break out of norms.   This seems to be consistent with what might be described as achieving creative breakthroughs in their project work. The Tuckman model had no way of explaining how teams might break out of norms toward new norms of behaviour.

The two-barrier hypothesis

In addressing these conceptual difficulties, we proposed a two-barrier solution (Rickards & Moger, 2001), which is a modification to Tuckman’s stage model rather than a total rejection of it. Consistent patterns of behaviour had been discovered across the hundreds of teams studied. A small proportion of teams struggled to reach any effective result from their work. The majority of the teams achieved goals set them to the satisfaction of the client. A minority of teams performed beyond expectations.

We concluded that the most dysfunctionalteams had been defeated by a barrier beyond which the majority of most teams had been able to pass. In our view this was a behavioural barrier. We were led to that conclusion because the weak teams appeared to be permanently mired in behaviors which seemed to be consistent with Tuckman’s psychological storm stage of team development. The teams that passed the behavioural barrier for the most part behaved as predicted by the Tuckman model, arriving at stable group norms permitting effective functioning.

However, this was not the case in the minority of teams which appeared to go beyond the Tuckman norms of stable behaviour and achievement of pre-established production outputs. These teams passed the norm stage by going beyond the project brief in a creative way which added unexpected value for the client. We suspected that a differentiating principle of the behaviours of high-performance teams was the effective establishment of conditions favouring creativity, particularly by a team-leader appointed by the team.

To summarise: Our findings posed two challenges to the prevailing model of team development. The weak teams posed the question ‘what is happening if a team fails to develop beyond the storm stage? The exceptional teams posed the question ‘what happens if a team breaks out of the performance norms developed? Our hypothesis was that teams were differentiated by two barriers to performance. The weak barrier was behavioural, and defeated a minority of teams; the strong barrier was a barrier to creative or innovative performance, and defeated the majority of those teams passing through the weak barrier.

The two-barrier model offered a rich starting point for exploring how a team leader might be influencing the performance of teams. As our training interventions were intended to facilitate a team’s creativity, we began to look for a deeper understanding of how the practice of creative leadership might explain the observed behaviors.

Creative leadership and benign structures

We began to refer to the leadership practices in the most successful teams as establishing benign structures for creative success (Rickards & Moger, 1999a; 2000). This implied a mechanism through which creative team leaders helped reconfigure the behavioural structures and practices under which team members operate:

 ‘We propose that theories of project team development and of creativity can be integrated into a new conceptual framework. The framework proposes two structural barriers that bear on team performance, and modifies the well-established team development model of Tuckman. Creative leadership is suggested as an important means of breaching the barriers. Its differentiating feature seems to be its effectiveness in establishing protocols that sustain the creative efforts of team members. We have designated the protocols “benign structures” ’ (Rickards & Moger, 2000: 273).

We later extended the concept beyond project teams, suggesting that trust-based leadership and creative leadership shared the capacity to develop benign structures, even using as case examples work on pain-free horse training and horse-whispering (Rickards & Moger 2002).

Much work remains before a satisfactory theory of benign structures can be advanced. Our understanding developed initially in our analysis of the behaviours observed in teams applying creative problem-solving techniques.

It should be noted that in real-life project work, the period in which a team is engaged in such deliberate structuring of creative activity is a fraction of the time spent together as a team. This point is unremarked on in the literature, and illustrates an area of future work in examining how a team engaged briefly with creativity-structuring activities carries over (learns from) such behaviors to influence the broader inter-personal and goal-oriented work of the group.

To illustrate our understanding of benign structures we will begin with the simpler case of how a team leader applying a creative problem-solving structure may influence a team through that structure. This gives the critical and distinctive set of circumstances within which we were postulating that leaders introduced benign structures to a project team, with positive consequences for its creative productivity. Creativity techniques situated in real-life applications are then regarded as emergent products adapted to circumstances through an experiential learning process (Rickards, 1974, 1993).

We refer to the pioneering work of William Gordon in his Synectics approach to stimulating creativity in teams.   Gordon suggested that a creativity technique at the level of an innovation-seeking team might achieve results through a facilitative leader applying procedures which influence the psychological states of team members to permit easier discovery of new ideas. He used the vocabulary of operational mechanisms to describe the procedures, and precepts to indicate guiding principles behind the procedures.  This is an approach which provides a way to tease out the essential features of leadership behaviors which are necessary (if not sufficient) for the introduction of benign structures into group processes.   In any application of a creativity-spurring technique, we may need to assess what principles (precepts) are implicit in the approach, and what structures, routines, or rules are introduced (operational mechanisms).

If we apply Gordon’s classification to Osborn’s celebrated brainstorming approach, operational mechanisms and principles can be seen, although these are not all as easy to disentangle as might be desired. Instructions to the team to ‘, go for a large number of ideas, and build on other people’s ideas’ and clearly operational mechanisms structuring behaviors. The ‘rule’ that ‘quantity’ [of ideas] increases ‘quality’ is offered as an operational mechanism, but it is a rather loosely framed instruction regarding actions, and cold arguably be closer to a precept sometimes referred to as the deferment of judgement principle).

This example demonstrates that the ‘rules’ or structures for stimulating creativity are sometimes quite precise, sometimes less precise. The precepts serve as ways in which variations in the structures can be developed through experience, proposed as a process of creative analysis, (Rickards, 1974).

 Change-oriented leadership

Later, evidence from a group of Swedish workers helped us to an understanding of how the work might be accommodated into the broader literature of leadership. Ekvall and Arvonen carried out extensive studies of project teams, reworking the methodology of the classical Ohio State studies (Arvonen, 2008; Ekvall & Arvonen, 1991, 1994). Their results challenged the long-accepted two-factor model of management influence on team work. Ekvall and Arvonen carried out extensive examination of leadership styles and reported that a third factor was emerging, one they termed a change-oriented style. They conclude that the style had just not been visible under the conditions in which teams were studied by the earlier workers. Rather, they suggested, increased organizational uncertainties had contributed to its emergence. This analysis provided us with a rationale for investigating the third style, which describe as a creative leadership style.

 The MPIA structure and team factors

Might the components within creative problem-techniques provide insights into the nature of a leader’s impact on a team? From this question we examined the most commonly-applied technique we had been developing, which had been derived from many years of experimentation in search of a system with widespread applicability as a teaching and development aid.   The system had originally developed from the Parnes-Osborn technique (Parnes, 1992).

In the 1990s, when we began developing interest in benign structures, we had settled in our work for a four-stage creative problem-solving model, presented by the acronym MPIA. Details of the model and its applications can be found in Rickards & DeCock (1994).

Prior to their engagement with the project we explain to participants that their work will be assisted if they follow principles of creative problem-solving, and structure their work into the four stages of the MPIA structure, namely mapping, perspective seeking, idea seeking and actions.   Also in the early training sessions, teams are provided with opportunities to experiment with applying the system on realistic exercises.

In applying the MPIA, teams consciously engage with a series of processes of information management. Experienced facilitators of creative problem-solving will recognise variations on the Parnes-Osborn system which includes stages of fact finding (akin to mapping); objective seeking (perspectives), idea finding and acceptance-seeking (ideas and actions). There are differences of emphasis in the treatments by different researchers but these are not salient to the present paper, and can be found in, among other published accounts, Rickards & De Cock, (1994) and Rickards & Moger, (1999a)

The MPIA structure helped us to derive suggests team factors which may be influenced by a leader following its stages. These became the focus of much quantification as cited below.

(1)        POU: Mapping suggested to us a process of building a platform of understanding (POU) around the project task.

(2)        SV: Perspective seeking suggested a system which encouraged the development of shared point of view, which we rounded up to a shared vision or common goal (SV).

(3)        IO: The idea seeking stage was refined when we conclude that for some groups generation of ideas without commitment to own them was less effective than groups which moved towards ideas that were owned. This the stage became one of idéa ownership processes (IO).

(4)        CLI We associated the MPIA protocols with a team factor arising because application of each of stages seemed to contribute to a constructive or creative team climate (CL)..

(5)        LFE Our systems model of MPIA indicated the possibility that experience gained through applying the technique fed back into new possibilities for subsequent applications. This gave us a the factor of learning from experience (LFE)

(6)        RES One aspect of the projects seemed to differentiate groups into those which were defeated by unexpected setbacks, and those which transcended setbacks (for example, in having a proposal rejected by a sponsor of client). This suggested the factor of resilience (RES)

(7)        NA This factor arose out of interviews with team sponsors, one of whom suggested that effective creative problem-solving in his experience often required networking skills. We borrowed his terminology of network activation (NA). .

Of the seven team factors we had arrived at, four arose directly from considerations of the MPIA model, and three from our involvement with the projects over an extended time period. [Footnote: strictly speaking the idea ownership factor is a hybrid factor. The operational mechanisms and precepts of the Parnes Osborn and MPIA models drew attention to a team’s capacity to generate powerful (‘creative’) ideas’. Our treatment added the component of commitment or ownership to the factor of idea generation skills]

The Team Factors Inventory

The seven team factors became the focus of empirical testing. After preliminary studies it became possible for us to make claims for an instrument through the use of which the seven factors could be extracted from self-reports (Rickards, Chen & Moger, 2001). This was to become known as the Team Factors Inventory (TFI).  Further testing has been conducted, including studies with Brazilian entrepreneurs (Gimenez, 2006) and Saudi Arabian finance professionals (Al Bereidi & Rickards, 2003).

The broad thrust of our work has been to work with teams on business tasks with minimal intrusion through application of measurement instruments. We have found this requires instrumentation of a minimalist kind. The most widely-applied version of the TFI is one that has retained its items once these were established as providing reliable indicators of the seven team factors. We acknowledge that this by no means ends the pursuit for psychometric improvements and welcome any such studies. Web-based data collection appears to be one promising way of achieving further improvement in factor resolution, while retaining ease of use of the instrument.

Assessing the evidence for the two-barrier model of team performance

There is overwhelming evidence that a minority of teams of all kinds perform ‘beyond expectations’. Furthermore, from the same diverse sets of experiences, another group of teams perform in a disappointing fashion. This group could be said to perform ‘beneath expectations’. The majority of teams seem to fit into those who might be said to achieve but not exceed expectations.   Over a period of a decade of application we have accumulated extensive evidence that a two barrier model is consistent with, and yet strengthens the earlier proposal by Tuckman that teams acquire improved performace over time. The evidence has also received overwhelming support when presented back to teams in survey-feedback fashion.   The next stage in exploring the model is to add convincing quantitatively-based evidence of its validity.

Some years ago we had hopes to establish such evidence from the TFI data that would add strength to the qualitative findings. To date, various statistical manipulations of the database suggest that a three factor resolution into high, medium, and low clusters of teams can be demonstrated. We have hesitated to report these findings, however, as our cluster analyses fail to exclude the possibilities suggested by two factor or higher factor solutions. In hindsight, we feel that the TFI serves as an excellent survey-feedback instrument with high face-validity with respondents. However, the quantitative evidence is too indirect to be taken as more than indicative.

For this, further work is required, with additional (or even different) instrumentation which would probe more directly the nature of barriers to creative performance.   Much the same can be said of the impact of benign structures within the processes of team development. Discussion into the nature of such instrumentation would be welcomed and acknowledged.


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