Yet another article about the limits of teamwork for creativity

Last month the WSJ ran an article suggesting that team brainstorming was not as effective as generating ideas individually.

Typically, group brainstormers perform at about half the level they would if they brainstormed alone.

Now a new Reuters article, Workplace focus on individual fuels creativity, makes a similar argument.

The WSJ article was roundly, and rightly, refuted by many, including Stanford professor Bob Sutton. Sutton focused on the studies behind the article with his main critiques including:

  • Studies that only measure the number of ideas generated miss important aspects such as the quality of ideas or organizational commitment to them.
  • College students, used in virtually all the studies, are unlikely to be as effective at brainstorming as more experienced workers.
  • None of the studies examined real organizations in which brainstorming is a routine work practice.
  • Studies seem to present choices as an “either/or” proposition, whereas innovative organizations know they need both group brainstorming and individual idea generation.

This latest article seems susceptible to all the same critiques Sutton made regarding the WSJ article. The article is based on a study recently published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, which concluded that groups with an individualistic culture can be more creative and innovative than groups with a collectivistic culture. The researchers conducted experiments with teams of college students and that creativity was measured in terms of the number of ideas generated, the creativity of the ideas generated, and group performance in identifying and selecting the most creative ideas for implementation.

The key finding was that individualistic groups generated 37 ideas on average compared to an average of 26 ideas by collectivistic groups working collectively. Other findings were that individualistic groups generated ideas that were more creative and performed better in identifying and selecting their most creative ideas, compared to their collectivistic counterparts.

The researchers concluded that a collectivistic culture can actually inhibit creativity.

“The more you emphasize collectivity and team membership and orientation, the lower is the creativity,” [one of the researchers Barry] Staw said. “So much of creativity is being different, being willing to deviate and take chances and be the odd person out.”

“If you want innovation, you have to seek out the person who is different and the person who is not like everyone else,” said Staw.

“There will be costs,” he added. “You may have to tolerate people who are kind of jerks. Some of the most innovative people can be people who don’t get along very well in social situations and may be people you don’t want to spend a lot of time with.”

The article makes the valid point that some individuals working alone within their organizations can be effective at generating useful ideas. Indeed, we are all familiar with the notion of the “idea man.” However, innovation relies not only on idea generation, but also on a group of people turning ideas into new products, services, or processes. There will be times when organizations need more practical and actionable ideas, and situations when the most creative, divergent innovations are desirable. The article notes these varying demands, quoting a workplace consultant who points out that individualism is not so desirable or appropriate in many organizations.

But not every place needs hundreds of new ideas. At a lot of places, it’s more important that everyone coordinates and is on the same page and knows what each other is doing and aren’t left out of the loop.

Organizations need both new ideas and coordinated, collaborative efforts to exploit those ideas. New ideas that are generated by, and filtered through, groups within the organization will have a substantial leg-up when it comes to operationalizing and implementing the idea.

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2 Responses to Yet another article about the limits of teamwork for creativity

  1. Jack Goncalo says:

    There are two misconceptions about my article “Individualism-Collectivism and Group Creativity” in your critique of our paper that I would like to address.

    First, you were correct in pointing out that there are numerous studies showing that people generate more ideas when they work alone than when they work as a group. However our study did NOT make this comparison. We found that individualistic GROUPS were more creative than collectivistic GROUPS. In other words, groups who shared an individualistic mindset in which people were encouraged to stand out, be different, speak their mind, etc. were more creative when they worked together. This atmosphere is in contrast to a collectivistic mindset in which people are encouraged to fit in, to suppress conflict and to generally follow a “team player” mentality.

    Second, Professor Sutton is right to criticize laboratory experiments for focusing to much on the sheer number of ideas generated. However, our study included several different measures of creativity including the idea each group selected as being their most creative. Contrary to what one might expect, individualistic groups were better at identifying and agreeing on their most creative idea.

    In sum, we assert that the best way to stimulate creativity in groups is to foster an individualistic culture. Very interesting website!

    Best wishes,

    Jack Goncalo

  2. Jack – Thank you for your comments and for clarifying these points. I have edited the post to correct for any misconceptions the original text may have presented.

    Updating the post gave me the opportunity to review your full journal piece, which, as might be expected, is much more comprehensive than the brief summary in the press article I discussed in the post. The thoroughness of your research is impressive! I encourage others who are interested in group creativity dynamics to read the complete study.

    I particularly liked your discussion of how organizations may need to develop different cultures depending on whether high work performance or innovation is most critical. Quoting from the article:
    “We would expect collectivistic organizations to be more adept at exploitation than exploration (March, 1991). Because strong social pressures mean that coworkers are observing, rewarding, and sometimes punishing employee behavior, a collectivistic organization may be better able to mobilize people’s efforts than an individualistic organization. There may, as a result, be stronger motivation, more attention to detail, and less deviance from accepted business practices. While these factors are often necessary for high work performance, they are not prerequisites for innovation. It is commonly argued (e.g., Staw, 1995; Sutton, 2001) that an innovative firm must tolerate greater variance in both work attitudes and behavior. Therefore, while an individualistic firm may not be as efficient as a collectivistic company, it is more likely to provide fertile ground for creative ideas.”

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