The term ‘revolving door’ probably isn't one you want to hear when someone describes your workplace. It can mean staff constantly changing, signalling something very wrong with how a company is run. It can also feel unsettling to those who stay put, with an endless flow of new faces to work with.
But while excessive instability can be disruptive, a little bit of disruption can also bring positive benefits. New research shows that bringing fresh faces into an organisation – or even colleagues you don’t usually work with – is a boon for creativity. Shaking up your team just the right amount can transform an echo chamber that limits your potential into a force for innovation that takes your work to new heights – or, for Doctor Who fans, even a new dimension of space and time.
The ‘fresh face’ effect
There may be a surprisingly simple recipe to getting the creative juices flowing.
Pier Vittorio Mannucci, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, and his co-authors, professors Giuseppe Soda at Bocconi University in Italy, and Ronald S Burt at the University of Chicago, wanted to test the idea that new blood can make a major impact. They looked at how new team members could boost creativity in an environment in which workers continuously and frequently collaborated for creative work, over an extended period of time.
They zeroed in on the world of television, and then on Doctor Who specifically – a science-fiction programme that first aired on the BBC in 1963. A quick primer, for those new to Who: the Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, who travels across time and space in a TARDIS (a spaceship disguised as a phone box) solving crimes and saving planets. The Doctor, who regenerates rather than dies – making way for new incarnations of the main character – works with a succession of human companions. The show is still running today, although it took a break from 1989 to 2005.
The consistently changing teams behind the programme Doctor Who were key to creative quality, researchers have found (Credit: BBC)
The researchers focused on Doctor Who as the research subject because of how frequently new people were introduced – and not just the lead character. Mannucci says the key factor was the frequent changing of the showrunner, the individual in charge of a TV programme who oversees all creative and managerial elements. “With a new showrunner, there’s usually an uptick in new people,” says Mannucci.
He and his team looked at the composition of core crew members for 273 episodes of Doctor Who, between 1963 and 2014. For each episode, this ‘core’ group consisted of two to five people: the showrunner, a director and some writers. Overall, the researchers identified 200 individual crew members, then made a visual map of who worked with whom, and who overlapped with whom. For each episode, the researchers flagged when a new person was brought aboard the team, or if certain members of the team weren’t new, but were working together for the first time.
It’s just a spoonful of change that you need. You do not have to disrupt and change everyone in the office – Pier Vittorio Mannucci
Next, the researchers recruited two critics with deep knowledge of British television and Doctor Who specifically; they had studied the show and written about it for years. They asked the critics to rate the creative qualities of every episode studied on a scale of 1 to 5.
The researchers found that the teams with more new faces produced the high-rated episodes. Conversely, the more closed a network was around each crew member on an episode – fewer new faces, static teams – the worse average ratings those episodes received in the study.
The takeaway? By lightly shaking things up quite frequently, the study showed, teams can work more creatively, and produce better work.
More perspectives, more innovation
Of course, we’ve long known that diversity is good for teams. Studies have shown that more diverse teams – in terms of race, gender and other factors – are more profitable and successful. Different perspectives drive innovation.
Mannucci says working with new people not only allows for more cross-pollination among existing teams in an organisation, but also increases the chances of bringing different kinds of skill sets to the table. That's why it’s important the fresh faces in the Doctor Who study weren’t just people who had worked on the show before, just never together – it was also people from outside the production, who had worked on several different shows before Doctor Who, for example. He also emphasises that the frequency of refreshing collaborators is key – and that so is a sustained, committed effort to do so.
“We don’t like change in general. You want success, so you use the same people,” says Mannucci. But that’s a problem, because by the time you realise your work patterns are stale, it’s too late. “Over time, if you keep interacting with the same people – even if they bring diverse knowledge – the benefits wash away.”
Another key thing to keep in mind: teams just need one or two new faces.
“It’s just a spoonful of change that you need,” says Mannucci. “You do not have to disrupt and change everyone in the office – that’s a terrible idea. It's, ‘OK, I did this project with Bob and Kate. And the next project, with Kate and Mary. And the following project with Kate and Mary – but then we bring in John’. That's the type of change we’re talking about.”
Team success isn’t even dependent on the person bringing new knowledge. Mannucci says that simply by having a new person on the team, you'’l have to explain to this person how your team does things, which can force you “to think consciously" about workflow and current processes, giving you a fresh perspective on potentially stale habits.
Occasionally adding new members to teams, or working with people with whom you don't usually work, helps spark innovation and out-of-the-box thinking (Credit: Getty)
A necessary ‘shock’
These findings are applicable to just about any team in any work setting, not just TV crews. Having open, porous networks that welcome new people gives the necessary ‘shock’ the team needs to be more creative and produce better work.
Of course, the Doctor Who example is quite specific – but Mannucci says that television shows are a great place to test theories like these because there are so many episodes, so you have lots of opportunities to see how the team’s finished product changes over time. The same goes for industries like product design, he says, where teams work on many projects.
But it’s harder to test this theory in other work environments, like industries where workers may work on only one or two big projects at a time over the course of a year, such as consulting – you have fewer chances to test how the product changes with each batch of fresh workers. There’s also something counterintuitive about bringing in new people regularly. Most managers and companies seek stability. Especially if the team is doing well already, there may be an ‘if it ain't broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.
But given the creative benefits, it’s important to mix things up. And managers need to be pre-emptively aware of the fact that new blood means new, potentially positive, ways of tackling problems.
“Maintaining a closed network means that [a team] form an autonomous clique that does not rely on externals for advice, information or opinions. You can imagine that after a while, they all think the same and agree on everything,” adds Jean-Nicolas Reyt, assistant professor of organizational behavior at McGill University, Montreal. “It does have advantages in terms of increased support and stronger relationships, but it is a creativity killer. Maintaining an open network means people are connected to diverse people and bridge cliques.”
That’s why a revolving door is so vital – and not just on intergalactic spaceships that look like phone boxes.