Diversity: Key to creative processes in interdisciplinary teams

by  Dr Ingunn Johanne Ness, Senior Researcher and Theme Leader at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE), University of Bergen, Norway



In today’s global market, creativity is considered one of the most important requirements when it comes to adapting to change and being able to innovate both in organizations and in society. Therefore, it is important to investigate how creativity can be enhanced and fostered.

Creativity can be understood as creating something new or combining existing knowledge in new ways. In creativity research one often divides between “big C” and “little c”. Big C is the “elite definition” of creativity and points to innovations and discoveries that really make a difference to the world (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009). However, in order to get to Big C and innovative solutions, one also needs little c, which is about the processes involved when we understand something new. These processes include more daily activities like wondering and thinking “what if”?  It is about seeing things from another perspective. Based on this fact that we need creativity to achieve innovation, one of the most important questions to be asked is: How can we enhance creativity? The answer is rather short: different perspectives and diversity stimulate creativity. This is also the rationale behind interdisciplinary teamwork becoming a popular strategy for innovation work. However, interdisciplinary teamwork can be difficult and challenging due to differences in language and terminology, which again can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in communicating. Then again, if the teams are aware of these challenges and the team members possess some collaborative skills – it is likely that the differences and diversity in the teams will actually become a creative force (Ness & Riese, 2015).

This article will present results from a large ethnographic study on what characterized the creative knowledge processes in interdisciplinary teams working on developing innovative ideas. In particular, the article will go into depth regarding how diversity stimulated creative processes by presenting a model that was part of the results of the study. The model visualizes how the creative knowledge processes in innovative idea generation develop through six phases, each phase with particular characteristics, including what underlying conditions are necessary to succeed with interdisciplinary innovation work (For more see: Ness, 2017).

Constructivist scientific approach & sociocultural analytical framework

This project was conceived within a constructivist approach to knowledge development that assumes the social world to be socially constructed by individuals contributing actively to its creation (Hatch, 2002; Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009; Silverman, 2006; Glaveanu, 2015). This view overlaps with a sociocultural ontology of human activity that is based on the work of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky on the development of human knowledge. This article suggests that creative knowledge processes are by nature social, since ideas develop through a combined and relational process of co-construction of meaning and knowledge enhancement through dialogue.

Applying a sociocultural framework to this project provided some theoretical tools to investigate and discuss the creative knowledge processes in interdisciplinary teams working with developing innovative ideas. The sociocultural lens helped to maintain a focus on the social interactions and how the team members used mediating tools when they co-constructed new knowledge and ideas across disciplines.

Bakhtin´s concept of polyphony is constructive in its understanding how meaning, knowledge, and creativity are developed in the tension between different voices. Bakhtin’s view is that in the creation of ideas, dialogical relations are necessary. Different points of view can develop further, and new ones emerge in the meeting between different perspectives. To put it differently, creation of new knowledge requires tension between different voices and social languages (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 293). The concept of polyphony describes the relation between dialogue and monologue which is particularly relevant to the understanding of how an open dialogue enables creative processes instead of suppressing them and limiting the chance for innovative ideas to be developed.

 Methods and selected research teams

This study was qualitative and inspired by an ethnographic design that aims to describe cultures, and it required the researcher to understand a different way of living from the native point of view (Geertz, 1983, p. 69). It was important for the researcher to spend time in the teams in order to get rich descriptions of the creative knowledge processes. The ethnographic design enabled the researcher to get close to and capture these processes from the beginning to the end, identifying patterns and characteristics across the groups in situ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Fangen, 2010; Gerson & Horowitz, 2003; Krumsvik, 2014)

Three research teams

It was crucial to get access to authentic innovation processes in order to understand more about organizational creativity. Thus, the researcher considered the selection of possible organizations, using a combination of convenience and a purposive sample (Patton, 2002). The intention was to ensure rich data on these processes and not to compare the teams. Three research teams were selected: An Innovation team in an oil and gas company, a Strategy team in the same company and a Research team in a Research Institute.

 Semi-structured qualitative interviews and participant observation

The primary data were collected through participating observation and interviews. In addition, the researcher also had field conversations with the team members and team leaders. These field conversations were helpful for getting a broader understanding of both the team work itself and its context.

 Results and the Room of Opportunity model

The analyses of the observational data and interviews resulted in a complex understanding of the research question: what characterized the creative processes in interdisciplinary teams working to develop innovative ideas?

First, the results showed that the creative knowledge processes across the three teams had a similar pattern: they seemed to develop throughout six phases. Every team started with some kind of need or challenge that they were supposed to solve or use as a point of departure for the creative work that ideally should result in an innovative solution. See figure 1 below.

Fig. 1: Room of Opportunity – six phases of creative knowledge processes (Ness & Søreide, 2014)

In the very beginning in all teams, the members were put together and informed about the work. This phase was called the Initiation phase. Then the team members started to present their individual points of view and share this knowledge with the other members, so that all the different perspectives became visible to the others. This phase was called the Knowledge Distribution phase, and the climate in the team was often at this point polite and calm. After the knowledge sharing, the team members started to discuss the different views, and it became clear that they saw things very differently. The diversity was explicit, and the alterity and new perspectives often resulted in some tension among the team members, since they disagreed. Often, they had problems understanding each other, due to differences in language and terminology. This phase was characterized by dissonance and not too much harmony in team discussions. It had similarities to polyphony in music, due to how the many voices were blended together. This phase was thus called the Polyphony phase and was critical for how the rest of the creative work would play out. If the team members did not manage to communicate and to achieve intersubjectivity and some understanding, the creative work often broke down. On the other hand, when the discussions were constructive and the members managed to have a dialogue and listen to each other, in the sense that they made an effort to understand what the others tried to explain, the members would start to use the shared knowledge and learn from each other. They began to see things differently based on the creative tension that was created due to the differences. This helped them to imagine new ideas and understandings in the Imagination phase. These ideas were gradually formulated into something more concrete in the Idea formulation phase before they were consolidated in the last Consolidation phase.

More closely examined, the creative knowledge processes seemed to peak in the three middle phases where the team members discussed back and forth, argued, and were energic and eager to develop new ideas and solutions. These middle phases could be seen as a potential creative zone, and, consequently, these phases were called the “Room of Opportunity”. This particular room was characterized by how many voices stated, confronted, and built on different views in a polyphony which stimulated the teams´ imagination and creativity.

Based on these results, it was very clear that diversity was key to stimulating creativity. The diverse perspectives in the teams stimulated the creative processes and helped the teams to think outside the box and challenge existing knowledge. The team members engaged in dialogue and could shed light on the different discipline-specific ways of understanding the problem or challenge. Innovation happens at the intersection between disciplines.

In this work, it was crucial that the team members were able to collaborate. The creative knowledge processes were relational and involved interaction and collaborative co-construction of meaning, knowledge and ideas, including the emotional climate in the teams. From the results, it was clear that the team members were sharing and developing (co-constructing) knowledge and ideas and that they did this through a relational understanding of collaborative team work. Further, the team members were experts in different fields and could learn from each other thanks to the creative tension that the diversity created. However, this tension needed a safe environment in the teams in order to be constructive.

Relational conditions

The results of the study show that there are certain relational conditions involved when it comes to succeeding with interdisciplinary innovation work. First, team members’ skills in interacting with each other need to be excellent. Members in interdisciplinary teams should be open towards each other and to some extent care about each other´s wellbeing in order to have a safe and supportive environment within the team. Further, members in such teams need to be curious about other members’ specific knowledge and demonstrate an interest in the expertise the other members bring to the team. This curiosity can be displayed by asking questions and wanting to know more about the other members´ viewpoints. The intention is to make room for each other instead of dominating in the discussions and arguing only for one´s own viewpoint. In this study it was crucial that all team members’ expertise be acknowledged. Finally, the members should respect each other and agree that it is okay to disagree. If they managed to show each other respect even in heated discussions, the team would settle their differences before relational conflicts between the members developed. (Ness & Riese, 2015). In addition to these individual qualities and skills, there also were some contextual conditions present when the teams succeeded with the creative processes. These conditions were often a result of individual skills. They had to do with the atmosphere in the teams: team members needed to trust each other and feel safe in order to participate actively in creative work. In such processes, it is a point to think “outside the box”, and this implies leaving one’s “comfort zone”, in the sense that one moves into unknown territory. Often researchers and experts are used to stating what they know based on scientific research and well-documented studies on already-existing knowledge. In this study, the point was to use the imagination and think “what if”? This would involve asking “silly questions” or sharing “silly ideas”, and thus it was crucial that team members felt safe enough within the teams so as not to keep silent, but instead participate actively. Psychological safety is very important in any ambiguous situation (Edmondson, 2002), and creative work is foreign territory and ambiguous. According to Bakhtin (1981), knowledge and new ideas are created in tension between perspectives. Further, in a Bakhtinian notion, the polyphony in perspectives implies that no voice dominates the others and that all perspectives are equal. In interdisciplinary teams such acknowledgement of different views is highly important in order to accomplish creative work.


Interdisciplinary teamwork is a popular strategy for organizations when it comes to achieving innovative ideas and solutions.  However, there are also several challenges involved in working across disciplinary boundaries and managing constructive collaboration. The challenges have to do with how members in teams use different terminology and have different mindsets due to their educational backgrounds. These differences can lead to misunderstandings and difficulties in trusting each other. If team members don’t feel safe and can’t trust each other, this can result in relational conflicts and represent a barrier to collaboration and creative processes. However, if team members have certain relational skills, such as openness, curiosity, and respect, and if the team is able to build psychological safety and trust, the chances for success with the innovation work increase. When team members feel safe, they will contribute more and not be afraid of asking silly questions. They will be more likely to feel comfortable enough to engage in scenario thinking “outside the box” and to think “what if”?, which is the fundamental “little-c” process question leading to Big C and innovation.  If these relational conditions are met, team members will more freely express their different views and perspectives, and this diversity will again stimulate the teams´ creativity.


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