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Group Collaboration and Creativity

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.

Groupthink Strikes Back

Sawyer wrote a detailed if condescending rebuttal to Susan Cain. He says that Cain “misses the big picture” by downplaying the active exchange of ideas that can only happen in groups. Unlike Cain, Sawyer is a distinguished academic expert in the field with numerous scientific publications and honors. He also has spent his academic life supporting and promoting group work, and therefore has a lot to lose if it is discredited. His writing has the defensive tone of an academic whose feathers have been ruffled.

He takes her to task point by point, and the first one is the most stinging. It turns our that Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (the researcher Cain cited in correlating creativity with introversion) was Sawyer’s graduate adviser! Sawyer quotes Csikszentmihalyi’s own writing, stating that there is no correlation between introversion and creativity. One of Cain’s major assertions is that introverts are “uniquely creative,” and this rebuttal is therefore a major threat to her credibility. Her cited research needs to be examined more closely, to see if it was ill-represented in this case. Even if there is no correlation between introversion and creativity, there still could be correlation between solitude and creative output (Cain’s broader point). But the damage might be done.

Dr. Keith Sawyer

Dr. Keith Sawyer

Since Cain’s conclusion’s have mostly to do with general tendencies, Sawyer’s other points seem more like nit-picking. The Apple computer, through created by the somewhat solitary Wozniak, relied on parts and ideas from the Xerox Parc research collaboration. Also, classroom collaboration has been proved to enhance learning when conducted according to best practices. There is also evidence that pair-programming provides better results than solo computer programming.

Sawyer concedes Cain’s point that traditional brainstorming is a terrible method of ideation – for simple problems. However, he notes, when problems grow more complex, or take on a visual or spacial dimension, “groups out-perform solo workers.” Other experts have defended group ideation when it is conducted “properly.” Jonah Lehrer argues that group collaboration is more important than ever: an increasingly complex world requires problem-solvers to specialize in narrow areas, which means that solving broad problems requires collaboration amongst specialists. Brainstorming is not ineffective because it is collaborative…rather it is ineffective because the thinking is unchallenged. Groups that are allowed to criticize and debate ideas tend to outperform more accepting groups. Also, groups that are able to balance familiarity with fresh, divergent perspectives outperform both homogenous groups and solo workers.

Rethinking Collaboration

So, given all this, which environments will give us the most productivity and creativity?

Despite the resistance to Susan Cain’s conclusions, her point of view makes intuitive sense. She is not arguing against group collaboration; she argues for the space to do portions of one’s work in solitude. Even Dr. Sawyer concedes that solitude is a necessary part of creativity. Much of the resistance is probably unnecessary, because Ms. Cain is not taking a particularly extreme position. She only asks us to re-think our tendency to assume that crowded, vocal environments are always conducive to creativity.

CollaborationDo groups indeed produce inferior creative results compared to solo workers? Well, group dynamics do pose a problem for ideation. Much of the influence that group members exert on us is subconscious, and we are therefore unable to mitigate it. Thinking tends to converge even when the mission is to create divergent thought. This is especially true if, as in most brainstorming scenarios, the thinking is uninspired and unchallenged. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman tells us that the brain is capable of two kinds of thought: intuitive (automatic) thought and effortful (directed) thought. Brainstorming tends to result in lots of intuitive thinking because all answers are acceptable. The brain never really kicks out of autopilot. This means that the mental leaps and associations involved will reflect relatively basic, uninspired thinking.

Effectively challenging each other’s ideas in such scenarios, Cain points out, is much harder than it sounds. She tell Fast Company,

Human beings historically depended on each other for survival, we fear at a very primal level ostracism from the group. Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist, found that when people take a stand that’s different from that of the group, they have heightened activity in their amygdala, the part of the brain that’s sensitive to rejection. Berns calls this the “pain of independence.” So yes, encouraging conflict and debate moves people away from a herd-like mentality, but there’s a price as well, which is why I advocate having the most casual interactions possible, as opposed to formal meetings.

In light of Ms. Cain’s contributions, we may now need to look for a new ideal template for group collaboration. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Informal and spontaneous beats formal and enforced.

Steve Jobs understood the value of informal collaboration. When he designed the Pixar headquarters in 1999, he arranged everything around a central atrium, where he places all the mailboxes, restrooms, cafeteria and gift shop. Employees of all different areas of the company had to interact during the course of their day. Those spontaneous interactions brought forth a lot of creativity. Brad Bird, director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” said, “I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.”

2. Bring, and take back

Collaboration seems to work best when participants bring preconceived ideas, discuss them, hash them out, get some inspiration, then go back and work on something to bring to the next discussion. Bring something, then take something back to work on. Bring, then take back. Those atrium interactions at Pixar were predicated on the idea that after the interaction generates a spark, the employees could go back to their own areas to work. This allows for free exchange of ideas without the having the best ideas hijacked by group dynamics.

3. Digital group project communities produce excellent results

Online brainstorming is not actually brainstorming, which is why it works so well. It is a virtual version of the type of spontaneous, informal interactions described above, where people share the work that they’ve prepared on their own. Digital groups deliver their collective creativity using the rules of Swarm Theory, which means that the most effective online groups are large, with an effective and transparent communication mechanism. The same type of online collaborations that produced Linux, Drupal, and Wikipedia would cease to work effectively if they were a) formal, b) enforced, or c) real-time chats requiring the participants to come up with their creative output on their feet.

4. For any single collaboration, smaller groups tend to trump bigger groups (except online)

The critical mass for any single collaboration effort will depend on the nature and complexity of the project, and the personalities of the participants. Extremely large collaborations usually work by sub-segmenting into functional areas. The larger the group, the greater degree to which the members will conform to one another’s thinking, even without realizing.

As Cain points out, “Studies tell us that the most verbal, assertive, and dominant person’s ideas are going to be paid more attention to. However, those same studies also indicate zero correlation between the effectiveness with which an idea is advanced and its usefulness. Any time people come together in a meeting, we’re not necessarily getting the best ideas; we’re just getting the ideas of the best talkers.”

5. Comfort precedes dissent

Lehrer cites research about effective brainstorming groups that actively challenge the ideas that emerge. I have no problem believing this is true. But both the experiment and the control group would have had a mix of introverts and extroverts, and just because the experiment outperformed the control does not mean that the ideas of the introverts were listened to. Extroverts could have dominated the creative discussion in both cases. The criticism involved in the experiment makes it even more likely that introverts would resist contributing to the discussion.

In order to make sure all ideas are given their due, the group members must be comfortable enough with one another to feel willing to subject their ideas to criticism. That is why frequent collaborators work so well together: they are confident in one another’s quality and comfortable giving and receiving criticism.

6. Familiar groups, with intermittent new perspectives
Familiar groups, as we said above, work well – but they can also stagnate. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, studied collaborations through the history of musical theater. He discovered that the collaboration that produced the highest quality shows were those that were neither too new to each other, nor too familiar with one another. A high point was the musical West Side Story, which was created by Broadway veterans Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Laurents, but also with the addition of fresh unknown talent: lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

The most successful group chemistry seems built around a framework of familiar professional who trust one another implicitly, and know how to bring out the best in one another. Those successful groups also benefit from intermittent injections of fresh perspective.

  1. June 11, 2012 at 5:09 PM

    This is a very interesting post, and definitely applies to some of us who are in a public, sociable career (marketing)but prefer the peace and quiet of working alone. When leading group discussions and creative or what I term “spaghetti sessions” (throw it on the wall and see what sticks) I tend to call on the quiet types in the corner…I find typically the adage “still waters run deeps” is true. Keep up the great blog!

  2. June 11, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Veronica Kraushaar :This is a very interesting post, and definitely applies to some of us who are in a public, sociable career (marketing)but prefer the peace and quiet of working alone. When leading group discussions and creative or what I term “spaghetti sessions” (throw it on the wall and see what sticks) I tend to call on the quiet types in the corner…I find typically the adage “still waters run deep” is true. Keep up the great blog!

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