Archive for June, 2012

Group Collaboration and Creativity

June 4, 2012 2 comments
Quiet, by Susan Cain

Quiet, by Susan Cain

A popular new book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking challenges conventional notions of group collaboration and brainstorming. Author Susan Cain contends that group work, while essential in context, has “overtaken workplaces, schools and religious institutions.” Today’s overemphasis on group work crowds out solitary work and quiet reflection, and we are losing productivity and creativity as a result. This is especially true for the introverts among us, who are placed in loud, zero-privacy environments that inhibit their best work. In these environments, the loudest ideas, rather than the best ideas, tend to win out.

Hearing Ourselves Think

Ms. Cain makes a few interesting assertions that challenge our traditional thoughts on effective working and learning styles. She points out that there is a correlation between introversion and creativity (citing, among others, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). She also says that “solitude is a catalyst to innovation,” as illustrated by Steve Wozniak‘s work developing the Apple computer. In spite of the importance of solitude, some 70 percent of the American workforce works in open-area offices (which studies show make workers hostile, insecure and distracted), and “the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.” Solitude and privacy also influence productivity: In a famous study of computer programmers called The Coding Wars, “sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers.”

Susan Cain

Susan Cain

Most interestingly, she demonstrates that group brainstorming (and by extension most forms of group creativity) is ineffective at producing high quality results. She cites organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham, who explains that in group brainstorming sessions, group dynamics take over and suppress much of the potential creativity. People “sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own.” Most times, they are unaware that they are even doing so.

While we should not abolish teamwork, Cain concludes, our workplaces and schools should encourage solo work in addition to group work. We should not blindly push all people into constant group collaboration because we assume it is always the most productive style of work. Other personal styles must be respected. People – especially more introverted people – need space to work and think.

These are thought-provoking conclusions, and when we read them, we recognize our tendency to think about these questions very simplistically. However, before we do another 180 and start throwing stones at all group work, we need to acknowledge that some people are challenging Ms. Cain’s thoughts. Keith Sawyer is an associate professor of education at Washington University of St. Louis, and has authored several books on group collaboration. The title of one such book, Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, tells you all you need to know about his point of view. Read more…